1 year in business: how did I do it?

I’m quietly celebrating this June. Not the best month, or year, for celebrations given the world imploding and us being in lockdown amid a global pandemic.

Yet, the small things also make up our daily lives and work; and this month marks my business moving beyond the first year marker.

I have now successfully left my academic career and become gainfully self-employed. Back in May 2019, I set myself the goal of establishing a growing and sustainable business within a year of leaving my academic post – otherwise I’d look to other forms of employment.

I am beyond thankful that I have managed this! Setting up The Learning Curve Collective and honing in on offering my 1-1 Coaching Sessions has made for the most interesting and rewarding year.

Becoming self-employed has been crucial in finding a way to continue working using my skill-set whilst living with a chronic illness.  It has enabled me to live a much better life and have time with my kids. Lockdown during this pandemic has amplified the realities of working at home for most academics; I established my business pre-lockdown to be almost entirely home and online based. This allows flexibility, but it is not without it’s own issues.  I share some of my tips for working from home with kids here. 

How did you do it?

I wanted to write this post, not only to celebrate this anniversary and show that you can successfully and happily leave academia, but in order to offer some more insight and advice in response to the many questions I’ve had from women thinking about a similar transition out of academia.

There has been most interest in ‘how’ I made the move to self-employment – on the practical and financial aspects. I wrote about my essential start-up kit for starting your own business (with zero prior experience ) here. I give a list of the the courses, books, support and tech I used to learn how to set up by myself and do it on a shoe-string budget and a very tight timetable. 

However, this is only my experience – you have to do you.

So, in addition to all of the practicalities, there are some crucial questions to ask yourself – and really know the answers to – before you make any moves to leave.

It goes without saying that any change is a risk.

Be sure you can take on those risks – that they are leading to better things.

How will you do it? get to know yourself and your circumstances

If you are thinking about the move to self-employment, I really recommend you clear some time – at least half a day – to think through the implications of a career change.

Ask yourself these questions:

Firstly, Why do you want to move? The immediate answer might seem obvious – you feel miserable, trapped, stuck, bullied, bored, precarious. However, do not jump because you hate the way your work is; always leave for something better.

Secondly, what do you think self-employment will be like? What will you do and how? Is there a demand? Have you ‘tested the market’. Bust any myths if you have them. It is hard work and a continual project of self-development, unlearning and upskilling. And marketing. If you thrive on this kind of energy, then you will enjoy it; if not, it might not be the right immediate move.

Thirdly, have a cold, hard, candid talk with yourself and partner if applicable about money. Know your baseline. Know what you need to live well – it may be less than your current salary – and that is fine. I work part-time now. I spend nothing on travel and all the incidental spending on coffees and ‘things’ now I don’t have a commute. I don’t have childcare costs now I work around the school day/holidays.

Have a buffer fund if you can. Have a plan B for income. It is likely your main income driver will have quiet spells – I’ve taken on RA and transcription work; run an online course; given talks and workshops; even sold clothes on Ebay – these are not my main income streams, but they can be deployed if I have a quieter coaching spell (or I need to take some health related down time).

Fourthly – and I have a dedicated post on this coming  – what will leaving academia (or other career) do for your identity? Can you be ok with ‘leaving?

Map, visualise, journal these out. Find ways to gain clarity. If you need more guidance on these tools, sign up for my free newsletter or follow me on Instagram where I regularly share prompts and more of these techniques.

Side-hustle for a bit; or at least upskill in preparation

The best way to know if you can do it (of course you can!) is to try it out a little. This might be in doing some learning and upskilling e.g. taking an online course, reading, googling, getting some coaching. Part of the reason I became a coach was because I found it so transformative myself – investing in coaching really unlocked me and propelled my exit – along with the illness.

Another tip – keep your plans to yourself until you are ready; or at least talk to a trusted small circle.

There will be MANY, MANY, MANY people waiting to tell you you can’t do it.

To tell you that self-employment is worse than academia. That you will have to work all of the time. That you will be skint. These kinds of comments are rife in academia where so many are stressed, overworked and functioning in a context of manufactured competition and precarity.

Leaving is a challenge to many on the level of identity. Don’t let this derail you – your choices are about you.

If you do need to chat, know that my email and DMs are open. I’m always happy to give a quick response and if you need a longer work-through, I’ll let you know what my coaching options are. With No obligation, no hard sell.

The reason I do this work is not primarily find a better way to work for me, but it is also embedded in the need to get other academic women unstuck; clearer, more confident, in control. Women are not in deficit requiring a ‘fix’. You already have what you need. Whether you are staying in, or planning on moving on out.

 

Flexible routines for everyone: keeping lockdown working

Two months ago, as we entered into the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, I wrote this post about finding a daily routine for when everyone is at home. 

I wrote this post from the perspective and experience of a chronically ill mum who works online from home. Many aspects of my daily working life remain similar to ‘pre – COVID’ times. I have learned a lot from working with interrupted plans and feeling thwarted.

8 weeks on, the format of my work has not changed; but the atmosphere and why has.

I wanted to reflect on how many of the 5 tips I outlined 8 weeks ago still remain useful for us; and off the back of a week where my wheels came off. Where lockdown broke me.

Flexibility and reset

Chronic illness has made me learn to work with interruption and inability to make long term plans. I have to be able to flex, so I tend to plan along the lines of maximum I can do on any given day.

However, during lockdown and with kids at home, this maximum has decreased – or at least, had to be spread over a much longer period.

Getting used to flexing and resetting your plans is a big project of unlearning. Ditching that fear and guilt of ‘letting people down’ is both real – we have to do our job – and also amplified in our own minds.

Ask when you need to shift or pause. Ask early. Explain why. These are not excuses. You are going to do the work. You timeline is not the same as everyone else. And, it never has been.

Getting dressed for work

Shifting to working from home has changed my wardrobe. During lockdown, I still like to get dress for my on screen work.

However, much as I love a good dress and accessories, they are simply not functional or comfortable when you sitting, or running around after kids. And jeans? Why did I ever even bother? and I’ve embraced a 5pm pyjama.

Some days my kids have refused to get out of their pyjamas.  I haven’t pushed it. It just didn’t seem like the battle to invest lots of energy in.

Play and work for everyone

While me and my husband are still co-working in the tag-team system outlined in the earlier post, the kids are getting much more play time.

I’m ok with this. The school is ok with this.

These are unprecedented times and trying to simulate school is just not working for us. Our kids are learning a lot; reading, crafting, cooking, gardening, exercising, writing letters. Watching TV.

Screen time: when you need or want it

Working online and being in endless Zoom calls is exhausting. Don’t schedule them back-to-back. If you can’t control this, you don’t have to turn your camera and mic on in everything.

Just because you are at home also does not mean that you have to be available for every online meeting. You still have other demands on your time. Make boundaries.

If you have kids and they need a time out – or you need an hour or so – then letting them watch some of their favourite TV or film is ok for me.

As I’ve said before – I was raised on telly, have always been a huge telly addict, and watching TV has only ever complemented my other forms of learning.

Time out: little and often

This has become the only constant of our loose routine.

In fact, loosening off on writing time-tables and scheduling activities has made us all much less stressed. There is a new acceptance on seeing how we feel as a family.

When me or my husband have to work, we split the day and do what we have to otherwise, one or both of us, is on hand to play; or mediate the squabbles (I’m writing this to a soundtrack of the tears that come with playing Harry Potter Cluedo) .

We have worked some evenings, but this has not been a regular practice.

If we want cultures of overwork to change, we have to get comfortable with changing our own reflex on this and resisting. 

There is no right way to get through this

If this sounds privileged; it is. All of us able to work from home are privileged in varying degrees. However, that does not mean it is not hard.

We can be lonely if we live alone. We can feel overwhelmed if we have lots of people in a small space.

We can feel productive and able to show up, or we can feel absolutely numbed and blank.

We can feel all of these things on a given day.

So, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and a year since I left academia following burnout and depression, my underpinning lesson is learning to be kind to yourself.

This is not a trite slogan. Nor is it an excuse for self-sabotage or procrastination or putting things off.

Being kind to yourself is about recalibrating and giving yourself time to plan your time. To be able to show up to your work well. To do a good enough job.

To continue living through all of this.

 

Finding a daily routine that works when everyone is at home & everything is in flux

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates and the government have finally made the decision to close schools on Friday, parents are facing a tough time ahead.

Those of us that are able to work from home have an extraordinary privilege – I am in absolute debt to the service workers who are not able to self-isolate and are keeping things going.

However, working at home with kids is not an easy alternative. It can feel impossible.

You feel guilt over not being able to focus on work, or on child care.

I’ve had a couple of requests to share my daily routine – as I’ve become self-employed as a chronically ill mum, I’ve had to get used to working around uncertainty, interruptions and still show up to do the childcare.

I hope these 5 tips and insights into my new – very flexible – routine are useful for the many academic women with kids at home who are trying to keep working and doing the care work.

I caveat all of this with an explicit acknowledgement of the privileges I also enjoy; a partner also now working at home who shares the load and access to a garden space being top at the moment.

 

  1. You cannot continue as usual

 

My first tip is do not try to continue working in the same pattern, hours, tasks as usual. Unless you have live-in full time child care, this is not possible.

Accepting that you will have to reduce the number of hours (in a row) that you can spend on work is key. Think about ways in which you can spread your work across days and weeks is key.

Without accepting this, you will burnout. You will feel resentful and stressed and tempers will flare.

 

  1. Get up and get dressed.

 

I always get the kids ready for school – doing breakfasts, chats, dressed, teeth, snacks and bags. Then, they go off to school with Dad, and I get my own breakfast and try to fit in some exercise.

Since no one is going off to school now, I’m going to bring them into parts of my routine with me – I need to keep this part of my recovery going, and they can get some home-based PE in with me.  We’ll see…

 

  1. Blocks of time for work and play – for everyone.

 

Now that the kids and my OH are at home, we have worked out a rough schedule that will allow us both to get our work done and for the kids to have care and school work time. We are working on 2 blocks of several hours work time for everyone. For example, if my OH takes a morning block for work, I’ll be with the kids. This week our school is sending out work packs, which I’m really thankful for. I didn’t want to set the off track from their curriculum, so knowing what to focus on is very helpful.

We’ll all have a mid-morning break and lunch.

Hopefully we’ll manage some fresh air. Again – I’m very aware of the privilege in having access to some garden space.

I’ll then work in the afternoon.

We’ll try and make sure the kids ‘finish’ their work around 3 and have time for some of their usual after school club activities –  we go to a craft club & dancing, so I can replicate these.  This week, we’ve planted seeds, baked a cake, done some  junk modelling.

I’ve also got them into helping out with minor chores – hoovering, changing their beds, tidying. All things that I was working on anyway!

While one of us is doing the 3-6 shift, the other will work.

It’s enough time to get everything that needs to be done, done.

 

  1. Screen time is fine.

 I let my kids watch tv. I let my kids have the tablet.

I don’t have a problem with letting my kids have screen time. They need some down time too. Of course, this has to be adjusted to age/stage, but I really don’t have a problem with them watching TV.

I know what they watch and can have access to.

This buys time for cooking or a bit more work – usually I leave my admin until this time. Emailing while the food is on is a good multi-tasking hack.

So, no guilt if you let IPlayer do some heavy lifting for you.

There are so many things that TV does well for kids.

I’m also speaking as a well-adjusted and over-qualified adult that was a telly-addict kid In fact, during this period of self-isolation, I’m going to increase my screen time too.

 

  1. Take 10 minutes for yourself at a few intervals throughout the day.

 

It is really difficult when everyone is in the same small space at the same time, especially when this is really not usual.

It is crucial that you find some time and space just to do nothing by yourself.

To not be ‘on’ – for work or for your kids.

This might be when they are in bed.

Instead of emailing, why not listen to an audio book.

Or reflect on all the amazing things you have done getting everyone through the day.

 

You are not the only one finding this stressful

Take solace and reduce your stress levels by acknowledging that everyone is figuring out this new normal as they go along. Add in childcare, and the reality is you cannot work as if they are not there.

Repeat that to yourself often – you cannot work in the same way as if your kids were not there.

Take time to reflect on what you MUST do in a day and over a week.

You will not be doing everything. You will not be working in the same way.

You are not alone.

Be kind to yourself and to others.

 

Keep talking

I’m running a free ‘checking-in’ challenge next week.

From Monday 23rd to Friday 27th, I’ll be sending a daily ‘Starter for 10’ prompt to my mailing list. The aim of the prompt is to get your day off to a clear – and as calm as it can be – start. You can sign up to my mailing list here.

On Friday 27th March, I’ll be hosting a Facebook Live check in chat – wine or tea and kids all welcome. You can ask to join my group here.

As always, reach out, stay in touch. Keep talking to those that understand.

If you need to start somewhere, start with this challenge.

 

To the newly ‘working from home’: avoiding social isolation and maintaining professional identity

Over the past year, I have carved out a new post-academic career that is based on working from home. The majority of my work is now conducted online.

I have stage 4 endometriosis and trying to work through and mask endometriosis in the workplace led me to burnout –  and ultimately forced me to rethink how I could work.

I had planned to write a couple of blog posts this month – March is Endometriosis Awareness month – on working at home and managing productivity with illness.

As we now focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be tackled via social isolation, I thought my experience of learning to work well from home might be useful for those who are now newly working from home.

I want this post to be a helpful checklist of things to try if you are finding the shift to working from home challenging; not only in terms of missing out on the social aspects of work, but also in finding new ways of working that don’t represent too much of a challenge to professional identity.

We can learn a lot from those of us with chronic health conditions.

Afterall, remote working may become a new normal for those that can for the time being.

It’s not all working in your pyjamas: working from home is still work

Working from home is not an easy option, especially if you thrive on working via face-to-face contact. If working remotely means seeing the work that you have put into teaching and events being ‘cancelled’, this can create serious stress. Add loss of income and it is clear that working remotely is not an easy choice.

Being forced into something is always going to be difficult. You might be feeling stresses right now about how all of your plans have changed.  About having no time to adjust and continue. About coming off strike and being put under ‘emergency’ measures to continue to deliver teaching. Perhaps you have never taught online before.

In addition, there may be a real impact on identity. Again, often the case in academia – an organisational culture that prioritises the visible, the present and the ableist cultures of overwork. Not going into work and being ‘there’ can have a profound impact.

You may feel unmoored – you don’t have to be adrift.

There are benefits to being at home – lack of travel and commute time; less energy on the performance of teaching, of meetings, of being ‘on’.

Yet, working from home is still working.

So here are my suggestions of what to think about before you feel the urge to overwork to somehow ‘compensate’ for not being physically present.

My top ten lessons from a year of working from home:

 

  1. Resist using this time to ‘catch up’ on writing and research if you are actually going to be very busy. In this case, you are likely to be converting formerly face-to-face teaching (and meetings and supervision) to online formats. I have suggested some strategies to make this less onerous here, but this process is still going to require work and may well initially involve more hours spent (in communicating the changes to students, research partners, colleagues; the resulting an influx in email responses). You will also be getting the tech set up and adapting the materials.
  2. Plan out your days and don’t overcompensate not being on campus by being available online at all times; you would not be doing this normally. Your students will be fine with your online teaching and follow up. Don’t burnout. Set reasonable boundaries. Set office hours. Choose a platform that works for you to deliver feedback.
  3. Plan breaks and as much as you can get some fresh air. This may mean opening a window or popping into a garden if you have one.
  4. Eat your lunch. Away from your screen.
  5. If you are in bed because you are unwell, don’t take your laptop too. Again, just because you could check email or try to write, doesn’t mean you should.
  6. Think more in terms of physical distancing, rather than social distancing. You can use social media to connect positively with people in your network. You don’t have to constantly scroll the news and think about COVID-19 if it is causing you stress and anxiety. Check in one or twice a day and you will be informed. I’ve seen some great uses of social media already; virtual yoga; writing retreats; sharing teaching materials; tech advice; live streaming wildlife in the garden.
  7. Get some ambient noise or background burble going. Listen to the birds, check in with some audiobooks or podcasts or radio. If you miss working in cafes, you can also download a soundscape of a café to fake that atmosphere. This one called ‘Coffitivity’ even has a campus café choice…
  8. Talk to people and check in with one another; this might mean reanimating your phone for calls, or a quick Whatsapp. Don’t isolate yourself completely.
  9. Remember, you are not the only one impacted by this. Your work and research may well be impacted; but this is not down to you. It is outwith your control. This is not wasted work. It can be built on and back up again.
  10. Be kind to yourself and others. Take the time you need to do your work, and this as an opportunity to reflect on which ways you want to continue working in when this is finally over.

 

I am now almost 1 year out of academia and being self-employed based at home.

Most of my days are spent either at home, or in a very small local circuit involving the school run.

It has taken me months to reconcile myself that shrunken physical boundaries do not mean the end of a full life.

Working and living and connecting online is different from being able to do all the things face-to-face. It is not the same as being able to physically see new people and places.

 

Working from home is not worse. It is different.

I have ‘met’ and become friends with some of the most intelligent, funny, kind, smart people since I have began working remotely.

I now don’t know that I would go back to predominantly face-to-face work even if I found a magic wand that waved my ill health away.

Perhaps this enforced period of working differently will show more of us different ways are possible; a diversity of working patterns and practices can mean more, not less.

And I say that from the perspective of a chronically ill person who is still unravelling many, many layers of internalised ableism. I’m still working on working better every day.

Perhaps this is the time to think about how we really harness our own use of the online to enhance what we do offline too.

Keep the conversation going: feel free to RT and Share and do Tweet or connect on Instagram.

How are you finding working from home?

 

You already know how to teach online: a reminder of how and why to keep it simple

Let’s repeat this; ‘I don’t have to be an online learning expert to deliver engaging and informative material online’.

As the corona virus pandemic escalates, universities and schools in the UK are beginning to respond by cancelling face-to-face classes and events. For academics in the UK – many coming out of a prolonged period of strike action – this means having to find time to convert teaching or papers designed to be delivered in person into an online version.

I no longer work in academia – I resigned my post almost a year ago. Although I don’t work within the constraints of the university – student numbers, evaluations, platforms and tech issues – I have experienced trying to work around these whilst unable to deliver face-to-face content due to my chronic illness and fluctuating health.

I appreciate and know all too well the extra work and stress that having to quickly convert and repurpose content due to ill-health causes. The fear of negative evaluations if the online teaching experience was not the same as the offline experience.

I am now self-employed and my business model is based on the delivery of most of my services – coaching and teaching – online.

It has taken me a while to get up to speed with the platforms and formats that work. I’m not a tech expert. I’ve learned this as I go.

However, there are some quick and straight-forward ways to do this quickly; using the existing content you have and the platforms you already use.

 

How to deliver good enough offline content online, quickly and relatively stress-free.

 

Let’s repeat this; ‘I don’t have to be an online learning expert to deliver engaging and informative material online’.

Acknowledging and accepting this is point number one in reducing stress and time.

Ditto accepting that the online learning experience will NOT be the same. As Dr Jess Perriam outlined on Twitter – it takes the Open University 2 years to design bespoke online learning.

This is not what is being asked of you. It cannot – you are responding ad hoc to an unfolding crisis. Also – read this blog post on not investing too much time on this repurposing.

This doesn’t mean what you can offer won’t be useful

It does means you need to think about how to best repurpose your material and thinking about your audience and how they will engage with the new format.

You don’t need all-singing and dancing experiences. You are not being asked to turn yourself into a professional YouTuber.

You need the content to be good enough. It needs to fulfil the ILOS, be engaging, be informative.

It has to be adapted to the audience.

 

Less is always more

 Do you need to go beyond your existing slides with a voice or video-over? This might be most appropriate for a large undergraduate lecture.

What about if you are trying to convert a 2-3 hour participatory workshop for Master students? Again, less complicated that you might think.

I want to offer with some prompts and suggestions that you can try and adapt to find the most straight-forward – and effective – platform and approach for you and your students.

First, do a bit of thinking about the following:

  1. What is the core learning point from the lecture/seminar/workshop that can be delivered without you physically present?
  2. What is the best way to deliver that – slides; slides with audio; slides with video? Or a more participatory option (with written comments, or video participation)? You can add audio on Powerpoint or use software like Camtasia if your institution has it. You can also do this with Zoom because it allows you to share slides and record. You get a little video of you too with this option.
  3. What platforms are available/required of you to use (internal like Moodle or a course Facebook page, or do you have more choice?)
  4. What platforms can you already use? Well enough?
  5. How much time do you have to convert what you already have?
  6. How can you REPURPOSE not REWRITE that content?
  7. What are your expectations – are they reasonable of yourself?
  8. How long do you have to host the online version for? Does it have to be an hour like a face-to-face lecture?
  9. Think about the online learning experiences you have had – which worked and which didn’t? What are the essentials (information, engagement, opportunity for clarification).
  10. If the thought of recording a video makes you feel sick – don’t. Do audio or assign guided reading.

 

Then think about what you can already do:

  1. Think a bit more creatively about how you can repurpose the tools you already use.
  2. Take from the flipped classroom; can you record a short video and give guided prompts to the reading for students to do on their own time?
  3. If your course or subject use Facebook or similar, could you use the Facebook Live option?
  4. Could you use Zoom? You can use this video-conferencing software free for up to 40 minutes with unlimited participants and you can record to offer a reply option (then you have to pay). You can share the link. If you want to encourage participation, Zoom allows the participants to share video/audio, or listen.
  5. What about Vimeo – again the free version has a time limits, but it is an easy platform to use for a video and you can send the link in an email.
  6. Remember captioning; not only because we should do this as default for accessibility, but more people watch on their phones with the sound off. There are apps that you can use to do this.
  7. What about those longer 2-3 hour seminars or workshops? Why not send out a timetable factoring breaks and activities. There is no reason why you can’t run this as a discussion and participatory event with a few tweaks. Zoom works really well here.
  8. Check out Janet Murray’s podcast on this – although not aimed at academics, it is really useful in thinking about how to make this enforced transition of offline-online teaching work and can definitely be applied to university lectures, seminars and talks.

 

Manage student expectations from the outset

 

Your students will get a better experience if you manage their expectations from the outset.

Do the basic things like send an email with instructions of where and how to join the class.

Give a set of preparation exercises.

Outline what level of contact they will have with you – will there be a forum for Q&A, or will they be able to participate in real time if hosted on something like Zoom?

Will it be recorded for reply – if so, where will it be hosted?

What can they do after the class – will you host online office hours?

Again, using something like Facebook Live, or the resources within your institutional intranet/platform forum can be used – you may even be doing this anyway.

 

Manage your expectations of you: you know what you are doing

 

I don’t intend any of this to come across as ‘new’.

I know that you know all of this already.

However, it is useful to have a reminder that less is more; you can do it; this is not forever.

The positive in all of this is that we might finally edge closer to a wider landscape of platforms and forms of teaching, which can only enhance accessibility and perhaps reduce stress and overwork when we are unwell – not only when we are trying to confront a pandemic, but when we are chronically ill, or otherwise unwell.

 

I’m happy to chat more if you want to Tweet me or email me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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