Tuesday, 30 November 2010

In Search Of Midsomer Murders

Have I told you about one of my little hobbies? I scour charity shops for detective fiction titles. It all started a few years ago, when my sister-in-law gave us a handful of Brother Cadfael novels. She'd been picking them up in her local charity shops and having finished with them, passed them on to us, as she knew we'd enjoyed watching the series on TV with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael.

Well that was the beginning of a little hobby that has given me oodles of pleasure ever since. You see, after we 'd read the books she gave us, we were so hooked on Ellis Peters, that we wanted to read the rest.

Now obviously the easiest thing would be to pop online and order them from Amazon, but somehow that would be just too simple. There's a thrill in the chase that you don't get when you order online - thank goodness, - but for some reason, with detective fiction, I prefer to hunt them down myself. Oh and of course it's not a bad way of saving money and doing good all at the same time.

So I decided to carry on searching for them in the local charity shops, and thus the hobby was born.

Now the great thing about popular detective fiction, is that they sell in huge numbers, and people seem quite happy to give them away when they've read them. This means that the average High Street charity shop is more than likely to have a good selection to choose from.

But just picking up any old book isn't what I was after. No, instead I chose an author, or a series of books and set about collecting the whole lot. (I suspect there are total aficionados out there, who'll collect them in the chronological order of publication, but I'm not that restrictive).

So I started with the Brother Cadfael novels, which wasn't too difficult to complete. Then I moved on to the Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter. These were even easier to find, but such a good read that I didn't mind at all. I've never had the heart to give them away again because even though I can pretty much remember 'who did it' in all the stories, they'll still reward a re-reading.

After that I had a go at finding the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. These weren't too difficult to find either and I'm so glad I did buy them, because you'd be amazed how different the written stories are to most of the versions you see on TV. I'd never really bothered with Agatha Christie until then, but I'm a bit of a convert now.

Of course there was the year that I went after all of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels. Well that was a good year. His books, more than any of the others, I feel are much better read that watched. The TV series, despite the undoubted talents of John Hannah and the delicious Ken Stott, simple don't do justice to the stories that Rankin created. If you haven't already read them - is there anyone? - pop down to Oxfam this afternoon and get started.

I did see someone selling the entire Rebus collection on eBay one day, and it would have been cheaper than buying them second hand in the shops, but do you know, I just felt like that would be cheating, and it would definitely have spoilt the fun, so I kept on with my little jaunts into town until I finally completed the set. I can't tell you the emotions I felt when I discovered the very last one that I was missing, suffice to say it was a mix of elation at completing the series and sadness at the thought that I'd have to find a new author to collect.

Looking back, I do think it might have been a better idea to collect them all before reading them, or at least collecting them in order, so I could read them in order, but that would be like giving me a box of chocolates and asking me to keep them a year before I could eat them - just impossible.

I had a bit of a break after Rebus, but then back in the summer I decided I'd read Caroline Graham's Inspector Barnaby books - the ones that inspired the TV series, Midsomer Murders. I've always enjoyed the combination of whodunnit and black humour in the TV programmes and thought I might like the books. But my word, what a pain it is finding them. There's no shortage of charity shops in our local town to look in, but it's taking me an age to find any of her books. I had to resort to the library a couple of months ago, just to have a read, but even there, they're rarer than rubies.

And then on Saturday afternoon when I had a stroll into town with no great plan, just in need of a change of scene for an hour or two, what should I discover in the last charity shop visit of the day? You guessed it, not one, but two Inspector Barnaby books; Faithful Unto Death and The Killings At Badger's Drift. I snapped them up and came home as happy as Larry.

I happen to think there are few greater pleasures than being tucked up in a nice warm bed on a cold winter's night, with a good detective crime book, and here I am now, with two to keep me going for a few days while the snow keeps us indoors - such luck.

Of course I haven't got the whole series yet, so I'll no doubt be out and about again before long, searching for the missing volumes, but that's all part of the fun. If by any chance you're sitting on a few Caroline Graham books that you don't want any longer, please take pity on me and others like me, and take them to your charity shop - they'll find a good home.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Advantages Of Seasonal Clients

I don't suppose I'm the only person who's business follows, what shall we say, a rather on and off pattern. It's one of the things that you just have to get used to when you work for yourself. Sometimes there's barely a free hour in the day and then suddenly nobody wants anything at all and you're sitting pretty waiting for the phone to ring.

OK, I know that I should be actively pursuing more business, not sitting here writing this or (as I was earlier today) sorting out the coat cupboard - not pleasant, I can tell you - why do the particularly big spiders always take up residence around or worse, in, my wellies?

Anyway, I digress, the thing is, at this time of the year, if I'm really honest, I quite like not being too busy. I think that in a way I tend to encourage my clients not to give me anything major to do until the New Year. I don't exactly come out with "Hey December is a rubbish time to do x", but I might subtly leave them with that impression.

The thing is that since leaving the big corporate jungle, I've come to thoroughly enjoy the pre-Christmas build up. Now that I don't have to do all my Christmas shopping at weekends, with countless thousand other poor harassed shoppers, I'd be a bit resentful if I had to do it again. I like being able to potter around the shops during school hours, having a cup of tea or a spot of lunch, without having to fight for a free table in the teashop. I don't even have to do it all in one day - I can take my time, go to different towns - generally enjoy myself.

And then of course there's the question of hibernation. Once upon a time I wore skirts, 10 denier tights,and silky blouses to work. Now that's OK in the middle of summer, but quite frankly, once the clocks go back, I'm into jeans, wooly socks - sometimes several pairs - and enough layers of jumpers to look like the Michelin man.

I'm sure I must have dormouse genes, because as the temperature outside drops, my urge to roll up somewhere warm and sleep, gets stronger and stronger. That's something you can just about get away with when you work at home, but it's nigh on impossible surrounded by your colleagues in a large open-plan office.

So when I get new clients, I do tend to look for the ones with more seasonal patterns of demand. That way, it's much easier to know when I'm likely to be rushed off my feet and when I can expect to be left alone. And do you know? All things considered, I think that works well for me.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's Not Too Late - Honest!

I think I may have mentioned a few times already that one of my heros is Barbara Sher (I Love Barbara Sher) - OK so I might get a bit boring on the subject, but I don't care, she's had a big impact on my thinking over the last months and I'm still re-reading her books and finding lots more that helps me. So I'm happy to sing her praises in case even one other person finds help from her work as I have done.

It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now: How to Create Your Second Life at Any AgeAnyway, while I'm here still waiting for the Brené Brown books to arrive from The Book Depository, I've taken the time to read again one of Barbara's books that really speaks directly to those of us who're forty plus. It's called 'It's only too late if you don't start now - How to create your second life after forty'.

Now as you'll probably guess from the title of this blog, I'm at that stage in life when things can get complicated. Like oh so many other people - men and women - I've reached a point where the things I felt I knew for certain have suddenly or gradually crumbled. I've started asking myself questions about the future that I would never have had the courage to think about only a few years ago.

But it's sometimes a scary place to be. Deciding that the career path you dedicated thirty years of your life to, has not only lost it's sparkle, but now increasingly feels like a fraud, is not a comfortable place to be.

Knowing that something has to change in order to feel at peace with ourselves is only the first step. We have to find out for ourselves what will give us satisfaction and pleasure so that we can take the mid-life crisis and turn it into the launch pad into a new life. For some it might be easy, if you've always really known what you should be doing, always understood your special gifts and known what direction you should be going in, even though circumstances may have forced you to go a different way until now, then at least you're part of the way down the track towards getting your second life in order.

But in my experience, we're not all that lucky. Some of us reach this stage in life so demoralised and discouraged, that it takes a lot of hard work, soul searching and not a few tears, before we uncover from inside ourselves the essence of what will make us happy.

What I love about Barbara's book is the way she takes you by the hand and walks you through steps and exercises that gently fold back the layers until you get a glimpse of the things that start to give you hope, make you tingle with excitement and ultimately give you the desire to take action towards building your second life.

This is a great book to read if you need a compassionate 'friend' to tell you it's going to be OK - sometimes we need that, especially as we don't all have real friends with whom we can share our mid-life fears. I read it first about a year ago and took various pieces of advice from it, but since then, as is the way with a mid-life crisis, I've been changing. It really does feel like a big emotional journey and today I'm not in the same place I was even a few weeks ago - so I was relieved to find that reading 'It's only too late...' again this week has given me new insights.

So thanks again Barbara. I'm sure this won't be the last  time I read through, or indeed bore everyone with my hero worship!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Trust, Gratitude, Inspiration - Thank You Brené Brown

Do you ever get the feeling that something important, something maybe even life changing has happened to you? I'm not really thinking about the obviously life-changing events, like giving birth, or winning the lottery. No, what I mean is the feeling you get from time to time when you hear something that resonates with you and discover that you're not alone? Or when you read something and suddenly it's like a light going on in your brain and something that hadn't made sense to you before is now clear as day.

Well this week, amid migraines, work and the rest of it, I think I've had one of those transformational moments.

It started when I followed up a post on a blog I like to read from Gretchen Rubin's wonderful Happiness Project Blog. You can go to the particular post if you click here. Half way through, Emily McKhann mentions Brené Brown. Now I'd never heard of Brené before, but the comments about living courageously and imperfectly resonated so loud with me and my mid-life journey, that I had to take a look.

I'm so glad that I did. I've now discovered Brené's website, her books and her blog and I have a really warm sensation that I've found a new piece to add to my life jigsaw puzzle.

Now I think it's going to be quite a challenge, I've been listening to read-along podcasts, without the books - (they're on order!), which is kind of interesting in itself, but I still know that it's going to be worthwhile. I believe I've taken another important step this week.

One of the things Brené does on her blog is to ask her readers to answer three questions - 1) Who are you trusting today, 2) What are you grateful for today and 3) What is inspiring you today.

So today, I have to say I'm trusting myself, because although I know I need lots of support and I respect all the people close to me who're there for me, ultimately I have to make this journey myself and trust myself to find the right path.

I'm enormously grateful to the internet, because without it, I'd never have found people like Brené. I'd never have had that moment of connection and realised that I'm not alone.

And I'm inspired by Brené, because she wasn't afraid - well actually I think she was afraid, but she did it anyway - to tell her story so that the rest of us could take heart, learn and move forward.

I do hope that if you're thinking about life in a similar way right now, you'll have a look at her website and see for yourself if her thoughts are helpful to you too.

See Brené talking here.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Post Migraine Post.

Today is wonderful, ecstatic, brilliant. As I write, I'm trembling, I feel shaky and I'm excited. Why? Have I won the Lottery, have I landed a mega contract, have I discovered the elixir of eternal life? No, nothing like that, I feel amazing today, simply because the migraine I had yesterday has lifted, the sheer miserableness of Wednesday has gone, is past and the all pervading helplessness has drifted away.

If you ever experience migraines, you'll know what I mean. You'll also probably be familiar with the post migraine ecstasy too. I'm sure the scientists out there will tell us that it's hormonal or chemically induced, frankly I don't care how it happens, I can only say that when this shakiness starts I know the worst is over and I'm going to feel like living again. It's like a giant light shining at the end of the tunnel, showing you that there will be days when you're not wanting to bash your head against a wall.

Migraine has been a part of my life since I was about ten years old. I remember walking along a corridor in my school one day, carrying my 'cello. There were double doors at the end of the corridor but in the time I took to get to the doors, I lost half my vision and managed to bash the 'cello into the closed door that I simply hadn't seen. It seems funny now, but there's not much to laugh about where migraines are concerned.

As an adult, I've been very lucky. The really bad migraines have been mercifully few and far between, but I still live in fear of the next one, knowing just how debilitating they are. But whilst they don't often hit me in their full blown power, I do have fairly frequent periods of what I think of as migraine-brain. That's how I describe the days when your mouth and brain can't seem to connect, when what you want to say, just doesn't make it to your lips.

Often these days are also characterised by an inability to read or write. Do you get that experience? You know how it is, you look at the page but the words don't flow, it's as if you've never learned to read and you're not sure what's supposed to happen - what are those randomly collected words trying to tell you? As for writing, this is usually the way I most quickly recognise the onset of migraine-brain - I'll be trying to write something down, anything, a shopping list, a note for school, a piece of copywriting for work, anything, but what actually hits the page is a barely legible scribble. Spelling? Don't even think about it, just getting some of the correct letters down, not necessarily in the right order is an achievement.

Working through real migraines is nigh on impossible, but migraine-brain days sometimes just have to be endured. One of the good things about working for yourself is that you don't have so much trouble adjusting your day to accommodate migraine-brain. When I can't read or write, I try and do filing or simple tasks instead. At least I don't have to sit at a desk in full view of an open-plan office and fake being productive.

But today is OK, I'm back on top - long may it last and OMG what a relief!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Creating A Website For A Very Small Business.

Most people agree that if you're in business, even if it's a teeny weeny little operation where you're chief cook and bottle washer, you need a website. But how to you go about getting your website up and running? Should you pay to have one built professionally, or do it yourself?

Well in the last five years, I've had experience of both, so here are my tips which I hope will help you avoid some common pitfalls and save you money.

Decide what your website needs to do for you.
Sounds banally simple I know, but you'd be surprised how many people get carried away with this. We did when we designed our first site and it definitely cost us money.

The vast majority of small business websites need to communicate who you are, what you do and show examples of your work, so people can decide if they want to start talking to you. It's like having your CV online, or your credentials presentation.

As a rule of thumb, the simpler your needs, the easier it is to do-it-yourself. If you're having it built for you, take the time to put together a good brief for your designer.

Is there someone who would do it for you free of charge, or for a reciprocal service?
These days there are so many more people able to build good quality sites than there were even four or five years ago, that if you have access to someone suitable, it's probably worth asking them for help.

Just remember that it's a skill that's worth paying for, so make sure you offer something equitable in return.

Do you want to generate entirely new business?
Again, this sounds simplistic, of course you do. But for many small companies, the website is more of a badge of status, rather than a selling tool. It's a bit like a business card, you look more professional with one than without one, but it won't make too much difference in a lot of situations.

The reason for asking, is that if you want to get the maximum benefit from your site, you'll need to understand something about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Don't be fooled into thinking that all web designers will do this for you. In my own experience good graphic designers don't guarantee good SEO design. If you're writing your own copy, this is a must if you want to be found by the search engines.

Either take the time to find out some basics for yourself, or make sure whoever builds the site for you has a firm grip on the subject. Because this is what will help you score highly when complete strangers search for the type of service you're offering. You want them to find you, not have to wade through pages and pages of other sites first.

Our first site looked pretty, but was entirely useless as a selling tool because the chap who created it for us although a fabulous designer, had no idea about SEO - indeed he didn't even write any copy - our mistake for not having understood more about it before we were committed - don't make the same mistake.

What's important?
What we learnt the hard way, is that a good site needs to look professional, which means not going overboard with fonts and colours. Unless you're in the high end advertising or design industry, you don't need flashy graphics moving all over the place. Keep it simple.
It needs to load quickly and look consistently good on whichever platform your visitors view it. If you're not sure, check it out using lots of browsers on your own computer and get your friends to check it out on theirs' too.
It needs to communicate who you are and what you're like - that's the fun and tricky bit.

Keep it flexible - this is really important!
When we had our first site built, we moved offices about two months later. It cost us over £100 simply to have the address updated on the website. After that we were reluctant to make any changes, although there were obvious things we should have changed, like adding new examples of our work. OK we were naive - don't fall into the same trap.

Most small businesses need to change details on their site frequently. You want to be able to add new examples of your work, or testimonials from satisfied customers. Check that you'll be able to do that without it costing you an arm and a leg. And check how quickly it will be done too. A lot of agencies love doing the initial website build, but hardly give you the time of day when you want to make small changes.

To blog or not to blog?
This is just a personal bug-bear, but one thing I hate is looking at corporate websites with blogs where it's only updated about once every six months. This smacks to me of a lack of commitment. I know websites get better rankings at the search engines if they're updated frequently, which is a good argument for blogging, but unless you are really happy to stick to it through thick and thin, don't start.

Have a go at doing it yourself.
Now that I know more about websites and I'm not so afraid of them - although I still couldn't code anything to save my life - I'd always advise having a go yourself at building your site before you pay anyone to do it for you.

If you do your research online, you'll find lots of packages, most of which will give you a basic site with  minimal need for technical know-how, for a lot less than a professional would charge.  Some are still very techy, but if it looks too complicated, look for something simpler - there's site building software to suit all levels of ability.

If you're even marginally comfortable with design, I'd strongly urge you to try and see how you get on. Even if you decide it's not good enough, it will give you a superb basis for a brief with which to go to a professional builder.

If your copywriting skills aren't top notch, I would recommend getting some professional help. You don't want visitors to your site to be turned off by overly complicated or dense copy.

There's lots of help available online from forums and review sites. It's worth having a look around.

A note for Mac owners.
I built a test site in Serif a couple of years ago, then went out and bought a Mac - result, I had to start all over again as they weren't compatible. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I then discovered Sandvox.

The beauty of Sandvox is that it is incredibly easy to use, and is available to test as a free download. This means you can build your site in your own time, learning as you go along, and deciding if it's right for you before you have to part with your money. It's made a huge difference to me and I'm now a big fan. I've already used it to build our latest business website (FortyTwo Marketing Ltd), and am currently building a new site for my English historic places website, and the more I do with it, the more I discover it is able to do for me.

Small businesses have to be very lean and canny to survive, so unless you're lucky enough to have limitless funds, I'm all in favour of doing it yourself, especially when you're starting out. You can always start squirrelling away money to have a shiny new site built when your business is well and truly bobbing along.

But if you decide it's just not an option, at least do your homework and don't be beguiled by the promises web designers give you. Check out references from really satisfied customers. Speak to the site owners and get a feel for the service you'll receive.

If you've had experience of building a website, I'd love to hear from you. What worked for you and do you have any tips you'd pass on to others.

Have fun and good luck!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Are you a domestic goddess?

I've been listening to Woman's Hour on Radio 4 this morning - whilst engaged in my own domestic goddess activities. They had a discussion about housework and whether or not we should up our standards.

There was a report from a place where they teach housekeeping skills, including the remarkable concept of ironing sheets with regular creases in them.

Well I have to say that this is one of my bug-bears. My own dear mother had very high standards of housekeeping, but without ever making a fuss about it. She just got on and did it - all of it, entirely unaided. It wasn't until we had children that I began to fully appreciate the size of the task she'd taken on.

But now with my own house to keep, I find I'm not a natural domestic goddess. Oh yes, I'd love to have a perfect house, always tidy, but relaxed so the children feel happy to play creatively, I'd love to put healthy nutritionally balanced, organically sourced, home cooked meals on the table - yes table, not sofa in front of the TV, I'd love my children to be able to go to their wardrobes and find exactly the items of clothing they need, all beautifully laundered. I'd love all that, and much more besides, but the honest truth is that real life, well my real life, isn't much like that at all, and I'll bet neither is yours.

I inherited impossibly high standards of housekeeping from my mother in my genes, but I didn't inherit the mental capacity to devote myself to doing it. My mum would have been the first to acknowledge that things are different these days, but that doesn't stop the feelings of inadequacy that well up when I'm just too tired to cook an evening meal, or when a child asks for their PE kit, only to find it still festering in the laundry basket after a week.

The fact is that I'll never be able to live up to those standards, so any idea of raising my own standards, which are hard won as they are, is unimaginable.

In recent years I've tried lots of ways of coping with housework. I've had help when I could afford it. A cleaner is wonderful and someone to iron in theory is a boon. But gradually I've taken back all these tasks. Now I do it myself and to my schedule. I've decided that what works for me is to keep the kitchen under control and to have the sitting room tidy for at least the main part of the day. I try and make the hall reasonably clear of clutter, I make a meal plan once a week and I shop to a list. I really really do try hard to cook four of five times a week, and I try and make sure that between Friday evening and Sunday evening, I've washed, dried and ironed all school uniform and husband's work shirts. And that, dear reader is the sum total of my domestic goal setting.

My aspirations are sometimes higher, but I'm learning very slowly not to beat myself up if and when I fail to achieve them. After all, I really don't want to go to my grave wishing I'd spent more time with the mop. I just want my family to be warm, well-fed and happy.

And I am learning, it is coming along because I think I've defined what my baseline is and accepted that anything over that is to be welcomed, but not expected.

I believe that we all have a different level of tolerance when it comes to housework, and that's why no single system or routine or approach will work for everyone. I've done some reading and my favourite advice comes from The FlyLady. Now I know it's a quirky style, not for everybody, but I've incorporated some of her ideas into my life and for me they've made a difference. What appeals to me is her compassion. It's enough to battle your own inner critic, without someone else adding to your burden, but at least you get a supportive, 'been there, know how it feels' from The FlyLady.

So my reaction to Woman's Hour? Well, to all you real domestic goddesses out there, you have all my respect, at least now I appreciate everything you do, but I'm really not likely to be joining your ranks anytime soon.

This is Maria Cilley's (The FlyLady) book, if you're interested in reading more about her approach to housekeeping. I bought it a couple of years ago and gave it a go. At first I didn't get very far, but something must have stuck, because gradually I've found that I have incorporated  a number of her ideas. I once thought about giving the book away to the charity shop, but a little voice in my head stopped me, and now I'm glad it did, because I still go back to it from time to time and find more helpful advice.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Yet Another Wet & Windy Morning.

There's always a deep sense of sadness on Remembrance Day, and somehow even the weather today has decided to go along with the mood of grey depression. It's been blowing a gale and raining for hours. As I write this, I'm watching a lady struggle down the street with her umbrella trying hard to turn itself inside out.

I'm not normally too badly affected by wet weather, but we've had a lot of deeply grey days over the last couple of weeks and I think it's beginning to seep into my soul. This morning has found me moping around the house, not settling to anything much and for no good reason, other than that I simply feel low. I wander if we're meant to hibernate? It's certainly what I feel most like doing right now.

It's days like this that make me glad I'm not out in the corporate world, because if the urge to snuggle up  on the sofa with a hot drink and a crossword should become too compelling, there's nobody to stop me doing just that. On the other hand, if I had to be out there 'doing' something, I wouldn't be moping at all.

From past experience, I know that this glumness isn't likely to last very long - thank goodness. Quite often although I'll feel that I've wasted a day, come the evening I get a sudden boost and find I can actually get things done. So I'm hoping that's what will happen today.

Having said all that, I have achieved one thing this morning - I've managed to press out thirty clay Christmas tree shapes, ready to make into cards and bookmarks, number two daughter can sell at her forthcoming school Christmas Fayre.  We had a bit of an experiment last week and were sufficiently happy with the results to go for it on a larger scale. That's not something I could have done in the corporate world either.

Do you have any foolproof ways to get your motivation back on track? I've read umpteen books on the subject, most of which I think I can summarise as 'just get on with it'. Although last week I read Tom Hodgkinson's book, HOW TO BE FREE and so I'm now wandering if I should even worry at all about not being productive. Maybe it's entirely natural to just want to cuddle up with a blanket and do nothing.

Oh and one more thing, if you're affected by low light levels, put back your old energy inefficient light bulbs. Ditch the nasty new bulbs. I've recently replaced two blown energy efficient bulbs - yep, they don't last that long do they - in the kitchen, with the old type and guess what, it feels like a summer's day in there. Tells me something - I NEED LIGHT!

Right, off to sit in the kitchen now.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Give Me Some Space!

The fundamental requirement for successful working from home, is a dedicated space where you can keep everything you need to do your work efficiently. Now for me it's what was once the dining room. The fact that we had to give up dining in here, was really due to not wanting gravy or custard dripped over my work-in-progress files.

So we took away the dining table and chairs and I was left with a wonderful space, plenty of room for my desk, cupboards, shelves and a small sofa. It was heaven.

But the tranquility was not to last. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, other people's 'things' began to creep into my room. Well alright, some of it was mine too, like the tapestry wools and spare frames, the art materials, the 'cello and of course a load of books. But I have never played the bassoon, and there are two of them sitting on the floor here, next to me. I don't own a viola a violin or an electric keyboard either, but here they are too.

The roll of cable must belong to the other half. Very useful when cable is what you need, not so handy when you'd rather have two square feet of clear carpet. I admit that the pile of handbags and briefcases may technically be mine, although I do occasionally lend them to the rest of the brood, but the beer brewing kit is definitely not mine. I am not now nor ever have been a brewer.

I like the old horseshoe in the window, but the huge telescope tripod that is propped up against it really could do with another home. The sewing box next to my printer comes in handy from time to time, but I should put it back in the cupboard upstairs it once came out of. 

I won't go into any detail about the considerable tower of ancient computers stacked in the corner of the room. Needless to say, they're his, not mine, but to be fair they are over in the half of the room I've practically given up any title to, it being stuffed to bursting with electrical detritus of unimaginable origin.

The sewing machine that you need to be a weight-lifter to pick up, is on the floor, right in front of the cupboard where I keep my envelopes. A tad annoying when I'm doing my post. But my leg muscles must be enjoying the exercise I get pushing the machine along the carpet.

Despite all this, I generally manage, with just the occasional rant, to keep my desk space clear of other people's stuff. And so I must conclude that it could be worse. And I really would fight my way through any amount of instruments and electricals, rather than commute every day like I used to do.

My space may be pretty cramped, but I have a great view across the front lawn and a friendly squirrel comes and nibbles his acorns outside sometimes for my entertainment. Not a pleasure I had in all my employed years.

But take a tip from me, be protective of your own work space, guard it jealously if you can, or before you know it, you'll be surprised about what you're sharing it with.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Office Hours? Don't Make Me Laugh.

One of the great joys of working for yourself is that you get to decide when you'll work, no need to sit at a desk just because you have to be seen to be there, no desperate watching as the minute hand crawls round to 5.00pm before you can grab your coat and run.

Working at home gives you tremendous freedom, especially now that with mobile phones, we can be almost anywhere and still be available for our clients and suppliers.

But as any work from home business owners will tell you, that's only part of the story.

A couple of weeks ago, a fly on the wall in my house would have been able to see me simultaneously writing copy for a 6.00pm deadline whilst cooking spaghetti bolognese and overseeing some rather unpleasant maths homework. Why? Because ten minutes after I'd decided to call it a day and start cooking the dinner, my biggest client called to say he'd been offered a last minute deal and could I put something together quickly? And of course being a nice sort of person I said yes, rather than 'don't be absurd, I've a pound of mince browning and what time of day do you call this anyway!'

And this is the sort of thing that happens because when your home is also your office and when your phone goes with you everywhere, it is incredibly difficult to impose 'office hours'.

When I first started my own business, I'd refuse to leave the house at all, even when there was no work to do and nothing I actually wanted to work on, simply because after years of working 9 'til 5, I felt that I had to be there 'just in case'. I also worried that my clients would think I wasn't serious if I wasn't at the end of the phone when they called.

But gradually, I've adopted a rather more flexible approach.

My own preferred work pattern is to work fairly early in the day and then again later at night. I do the admin type jobs in the mornings and sometimes draft copy and have calls with colleagues, then at night I'll do the more solitary creative stuff. I'm not much good with afternoons, and teatime is all about feeding the family and ferrying children about. So when I can, that's how I arrange my work time. But it doesn't always work out that way, as the bolognese incident proves.

And of course it does depend to a greater or lesser extent on the nature of the industry in which you work. If your clients require you 'on-hand' 9 'til 5, you don't have much choice.

But the explosion in the numbers of people now choosing to work flexibly from home, makes me believe that more and more people are finding ways to work that do accommodate their needs for juggling work time with other things, be they family responsibilities, hobbies or even other jobs.

And the more of us that are working this way, the more our clients - I believe - will accept that it is normal and entirely agreeable. In fact, so long as we continue to offer excellent service, they're really the winners too, because as micro businesses, we're very much more responsive and flexible than bigger outfits, able to give our clients top notch service at a leaner rate than the big boys.

So I don't publish any official 'hours' to my clients. If I think they're being persistently unreasonable, I either charge them extra for the hassle factor, or decide to let someone else have the pleasure of their business. After all, we have the choice too.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Is Silence Golden?

When you were still at school and had to do homework, did you do it in silence, or did you have the radio or TV on at the same time?

It's something that interests me because when I'm working at home, I've begun to realise that for some projects I nearly always have the radio playing in the background, but for others I work in silence.

As a rule, my default position is to have speech radio playing all day. Living in the UK, that means either BBC Radio 4, or BBC Radio 7. Now these stations play a great variety of content. To be honest, I tune out to a lot of it. It's more of a background noise that I seem to need, rather than me actively engaged in listening to what's on.

Sometimes I'll find that I have been hooked and I'll actually listen carefully, but mostly it's just company.

But this morning I've been doing some more planning and I've done it all in silence. It was only when I got up for a coffee break, that I even realised that the radio was off. So why is it that for some tasks I seem to need background noise, but for others I have to have quiet time?

I used to think it was all to do with how much concentration was required, but I'm not sure that's true. Certainly when I'm copywriting, I do tend to keep the noise low, but not always, and quite often I'll actually play music while I write.

When I was doing my 'A' Levels, I did practically all my revision either listening to the cricket match commentaries or with the late lamented John Peel playing in the background. It didn't seem to do me any harm.

So I'm no nearer an answer. Do you have any ideas? My current 'best bet' is that it has something to do with the mood I'm in rather than the task I'm doing. If I'm happily engaged in something, I'm less bothered about company or distraction, if I'm less connected, I want noise around me. Well it's a theory...

Any budding psychologists out there care to elucidate?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Oh The Power Of A Good Flow Chart!

I've spent a large part of today planning out some new work I'm going to be doing in the next few months, and as usual, I've been using the tried and trusted flow chart to get from my initial brainstorming, to a detailed plan.

If you have difficulties putting your good ideas into action, then perhaps flow charts could be the answer you're looking for.

The brilliant thing about flow charts, is that they force you to break down your big ideas into simple, manageable steps.

To begin with, I'll get myself a big sheet of plain paper - I don't very often use lined paper at all, because I find I can be much more creative with plain paper.

On this sheet, I'll write in the middle what it is I want to achieve. This could be any goal you're working on. Then I spend time brainstorming all the things that I will need to do in order to achieve my goal. Sometimes this is quite simple, but for complicated projects, it can become quite complex.

I write down all these sub-stages, around the centre project title, in no particular place, although if stages seem to go together, I'll write them in the same area.

Once I've managed to collect all my thoughts, I then take another piece of plain paper, and on the very far right hand side, write the final goal - what I'm aiming to achieve - and put a circle around it.

Then I take the sub-stages I've noted in the brainstorming sheet, and consider each one - can I do it now? If not, what would I have to do first in order to do it? Now by working in this way through each sub-stage, noting down actions in the sequence they need to be done, you eventually work out a structure that has the most immediate actions on the left hand side of the sheet, flowing across the page to the final outcome.

If there are things I need to do, but I'm not sure how to do them, I'll still put them in the chart, but circle them and put a question mark there too, to remind me to work out the detail.

For every separate, that is non dependent action, I'll draw a new line in my flow chart, so that for a complicated project, I might have lots of lines coming into the final circle.

On really complicated charts, I might makes sub-charts for complex sub-tasks - but frankly, that's not very often.

But at last I'll have a chart that shows me the order in which I need to get things done.

Now this is the magic part. When I get to this stage, I get out my calendar - actually I'm very old fashioned here - I use a printed planner, but you could use whatever method of time-planning that makes sense to you.

I'll give my final goal a target completion date, or if that's already fixed, maybe a copy deadline or an exhibition date, I'll add this to the end circle.

Now I go backwards through the chart, working out when everything has to be done by, and estimating how long each stage will take. That tells me when each preceding stage has to start. Working backwards, I'll end up with a chart that tells me when every stage has to be started and finished to meet my deadline.

Then all I do is to make notes on my calendar of what has to be started on which day.

The beauty of this system, is that once I've created my chart and transferred the actions to my diary, I know what I have to do, without having to worry about the big picture. I can concentrate on each of the detailed actions. It's a bit like the old saying about 'how do you eat an elephant? By cutting it into small pieces'.

As I'm working on my projects, I'll have a regular check to see that I'm on target, and adjust the timings if necessary.

I've been doing this simple system for years and years and I can assure you that it's still one of the best ways to make progress on what you're doing, because it forces you to translate ideas into actions and give those actions a definite date by which they need to happen. It also allows your brain to let go of the big picture, so you can use your energy to put it into practice, step by step.

It's a funny thing, but when we make dates, we have a much higher chance of actually doing what we planned.

So, if you're struggling to eat your elephant, grab some plain paper, a pen and your diary, and see what happens.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Wishing A Merry Christmas To Your Network.

Now I have personal rule, which is that I will not do any Christmas shopping until after Bonfire Night (November 5th, for those of you outside the UK, who don't get to spend the evening oohing and aahing at firework displays that commemorate the Gunpowder Plot). It's one of my little quirks, I just can't bear the thought of Christmas preparations going on for months.

But with my business woman's hat on, I do have one exception, and that's buying Christmas cards.

The reason is simple. Sending Christmas cards is one of the easiest and most effective way for me to stay in touch with my network of clients, prospective clients and 'influencers' - the people I know who are able to help send new clients to me.

Now being just a micro business, I don't have a huge number of people to send out cards to, which means that I can write a personal message to each one. Obviously this isn't going to be so much fun if your list runs into the thousands, but then again, if you're in that position, you can probably prioritise the list and still send a personal message to your top fifty or so contacts.

Now in case you're wondering, this isn't the only time in the year that I contact my network. I think they'd be pretty hacked off with me if they only had something through once a year. But at Christmas, it's a really good opportunity to send a very gentle reminder that I'm here and open for business.

I make it another rule never to try and sell anything at this time. If the contact has been particularly helpful, I'll say 'thank-you for your help this year', but otherwise, I keep it pretty simple, but personal - use their first name, mention family members where appropriate - wish them luck in the New Year for any particular activity or hobby I know interests them - that kind of thing.

What I'm aiming at, is giving them the feeling of a warm greeting from a valued friend.

In absolutely no circumstances would I send one of those hideous circulars, recounting a list of my - or worse, my family's achievements over the last twelve months. I'm afraid if I receive a similar communication, it makes me think rather less of the sender, and I award a mental black mark against them... But of course that's just me - quirky.

Keeping in touch with your work network is one of the most important ways of fuelling your businesses development, and staying on good terms with them is vital. So I use the Christmas card as one of my regular marketing activities. Around this time of year, I'll usually sit down - or more often go out for a walk - and think through the other ways I'll aim to communicate with the network over the coming six to twelve months.

By knowing what and when I'm going to communicate, I can keep my network warm and friendly.

So I'll be off this afternoon to buy a nice selection of charity Christmas cards and give myself time to write them carefully, ready to send out a couple of weeks before the Christmas holiday begins.

Monday, 1 November 2010

De-clutter is a disaster.

Well I've decided to forget about daily de-cluttering for a while, it's just not something you can do, well at least it's not something I can do, while I have the children and/or husband at home. My time seems to be much more focussed on the regular provision of food, clean clothes and an 'on-demand' taxi service.

Any attempt to enthuse the others with my de-cluttering passion has fallen on deaf ears. Indeed the children managed both to not hear and provide a 'what us? you must be mad' kind of sneer at the same time.

So although they've gone back to school this week, I don't think I'll be resurrecting the mission just yet.  If I have an idle moment, I might have a quick purge on the area closest to me - no need to worry, I'm not spoilt for choice - but I'm not going to be allocating time specifically for the purpose.

One small, but gratifying success to record however, I have cleared and what's more, kept clear, the top of the cupboard where I keep my art materials. Might not sound much, but in this house a tidy and clear worktop, table top or shelf, is pretty well guaranteed to be covered by a new pile of detritus with a speed that would astonish you. In fact, I think scientists should study this phenomena. It's the only 'law of attraction' that I can say I one hundred percent agree with.