Perpetual pivoters: an interview with writer Susan Earlam

I’m delighted to hit publish on this guest blog for you!

Back in October, I had the absolute pleasure to chat with Susan Earlam – a freelance blogger, writer and creator. I’ve followed Susan for a number of years, but we really connected last year over on Instagram in conversations about chronic health, writing and career pivots.

Author Susan Earlam

When Susan agreed to speak to me – originally for the podcast – more on why the podcast is no more coming soon – I was thrilled.

Susan has successfully pivoted – we talk about her career as in perpetual pivot  – from the early social influencer industry to a published fiction author. You can read her fiction here.

So, here we go – the highlights of our conversation on all things career pivot and writing. There is some fantastic advice in here about how to relocate and listen to your inner voice and some tips on getting the writing done!

Vik: To start off with, can you tell me about your pivot or pivots? How and why did they come about?

Susan: Well, which pivot?! I feel like my whole life has just been pivot after pivot after pivot! I’m just one of these people who thrives on change. If my heart is not in it, I just don’t want to carry on with it – it just feels really inauthentic. So, my most recent one would be going from an interiors and lifestyle blogger to writing a novel, which is on a totally different subject– it’s dystopian sci-fi. Peoples’ reaction to that change was interesting – quite mixed! Although I did have a lot of support. But even before that – I went from being a teacher at high school to a full-time stay-at-home mum and I count that as a pivot too – you are changing your lifestyle, your daily habits. And before that, I studied fine art and had all those grand ideas about living in London, but became a make-up artist and then a teacher. But I’ve never been that kind of person who wanted to be 25 years in the same job.  I do thrive on routine, but I like being my own boss as much as possible!

Vik: It’s so good to hear that mindset – that it’s ok to change. I think that there is a lot of pressure on women to settle, or once you get a career, to be grateful. There is a fear of changing – it can feel like such a risk.

Susan: Change is not a walk in the park! It takes a lot – it’s like you are a volcano rumbling underneath – it might look dormant, but there’s stuff going on, but you need to get to that tipping point where you think, I’ve got more to lose if I stay here than if I risk it and change.

Vik: Yes! That’s how got here – all the things I thought were good and had kept me in the job were actually no longer really there.  

So, your shift to novel writing – can you tell us how that came about?

Susan: I had some coaching with my friend was retraining as a coach and needed guinea pigs and I thought yes! I was doing my old blog, but I felt like something had to change – I was not feeling as driven or excited to write a blog post. Everything started to feel really consumerist. To be honest I’m not the kind of person who is always going to be doing up rooms to put on Instagram! So, that side of it all started feeling a bit icky. I had been asking myself whether I really wanted to do this – to shout about all these new things; to encourage people to buy. I just started to feel uncomfortable being this ‘influencer’ – it started to feel wrong and I’d been distancing myself from it for a while. I felt like I needed to create something that was more than the blog – that was beyond it. I’d seen my contemporaries starting to write e-books and offer courses and I thought maybe I should do that. But I wasn’t sure, and the coaching helped me to dig deeper. Coaching really helped unpick that and the bottom line – ‘what do you want?’ – came down to wanting to go into a bookshop and pick my book off the shelf! It would be a fictional novel. I got to the bottom of what I was excited about; writing a novel meant I could create a world, characters, I was not answering to anyone. The rebel inside me was like ‘I don’t want to do blogging work for other people anymore’!

Vik: It does seem like an interesting moment– there seems to be a bit of a sea change coming – that Instagram might be getting back to a space for connection rather than consumption?

Susan: Instagram is such a task mistress! It can be such a big distraction. I’ve deleted it off my phone so many times.

Vik: Yes! I use it for inspiration versus comparison and pressure! It’s fine to have social media, but so long as we are intentional about it.

Can you tell us what your biggest learning curve from all of your pivots has been?

Susan: This might sound really cheesy! But I think you always have it inside you. You always do know what the right thing for you is; what the right time for you to make the change is. Often you are looking for that external verification. Sometimes that can help, but sometimes if you keep looking elsewhere you can stop listening to yourself. That’s why coaching helped – it was so specific about me – just me – and I’d never had that conversation about myself before. That focus let me listen to that inner voice. I feel that since then I can hear myself a bit more. It’s added a bit of strength to what I think I want to do – and some compassion towards myself too.

Vik: Yes! Being kinder and focussing on what you can do can be so transformative!

Susan: And I think that when you are a parent or have lots of other responsibilities, there is such a pull on your time – both your mind and physically – from all these other voices. The space inside your head for yourself just gets slimmer – you have to fight to pull that back and fight for yourself. Coaching helped me get there a bit quicker.

Vik: Absolutely – having someone there listening to you think not only about what you want to do, but how you are going to do it, is so useful. Coaching was also fundamental to me planning my exit and making this pivot.

Susan: Yes – hearing yourself say out loud what you really want to someone else is such a good thing.

Vik: So, have you ever felt the fear of change and it has stopped you doing something?

Susan: When I was changing to my real name on my blog – that took about 2 years to do. I toyed with it for ages and it was partly fear – that my page ranks, domain authority etc would go down that delayed it. But over time that became less and less important because I didn’t want to do that kind of work with brands anymore! But it did take me some time to do it properly. I wanted to make sure it was a a celebration of the change and me. The coaching helped me get over that. It was like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen’? You keep doing the thing you don’t want to do anymore to keep followers, but what’s the value?

Vik: Yes, and although academia seems like a very different kind of space, that focus on metrics and external validation – it feels like a pretty similar pressure! But actually, if you want to have a progressive influence and make change, you need to actually be engaging!

Susan: Yes! That was one of the reasons I was getting really disenchanted with the whole social media influencer thing because it was no longer a level playing field and people were gaming the system. But it was not built on genuine engagement. I found it all uninspiring!

Vik: There are just so many parallels with all organisations!

I really like this way of talking about pivots as longer term processes – you might know you want to change, but it takes time and that’s ok.

Susan: Yes – because you have other things going on in your life too! If you are a parent and then your kids go to school – that’s another pivot. Your days and routines change again. There’s just other stuff going on! You can’t just drop everything and change.

Vik: Yes! We definitely need to be realistic and kind – knowing how long change can take – and what it will take to change is so crucial. For me, my kids going to school was a big factor – I could start to see the time I make this change actually work!

Susan: Yes! and you become focussed like a laser when you know you have less time!

Vik: Do you have a piece of advice you have been given that has worked for you in deciding how to make change, or a lesson you would like to share?

Susan: Actually, it was from my husband; he would say ‘if it feels wrong, then it probably is wrong’. If you are presented with an opportunity, but you are not jumping at it, it’s not necessarily right. It’s maybe not to do with fear, but it might be ethical or moral reservations. Most people have a good compass about that –the opportunity will feel weird. Part of you will think about it – it’s logical to consider the offers – but if it feels weird, it probably is not for you.

Vik: This is so valuable!  I think it will also resonate with readers – that you can say no to things that are not right for you. Opportunities that do work for you will come along again. If it feels wrong at the beginning, it’s unlikely to get better as it progresses!

Susan: And that goes back to listening to your instincts or inner voice – but if you can’t hear it then it’s harder to see. You can convince yourself that its fear stopping you and just go for it, but it might be that it’s really wrong for you!

Vik: So, can you tell us a bit more about how you do manage your writing routine – you said you are a rebel, but you like routine –how does that work? What is your daily writing routine like?

Susan: Have you heard of Gretchin Rubin and the 4 tendencies? Rubin says to get a rebel to do anything, you have to set up choices for them because if anything sounds like a rule, whether internally or externally set, a rebel, will rebel! So, I give myself a ‘choice’, for example, I say to myself ‘you don’t have to sit and write for an hour, but if you don’t then you won’t be any closer to that book deal’. That works better for me than if I set a routine and said ‘I write for 2 hours every day’ – that is just too much like a rule, that I’d want to break! Reading that helped me so much to get here with the novel. I’m now on the third draft and almost ready to send it off to an agent. You just have to find a way to keep the momentum going– even if it is just writing in a notepad to keep your mind in it a little. I tend to use the main part of the day on editing or writing short stories to submit –those are satisfying because they are ‘done’ – and now I’m beginning to get some of these published, so that keeps me going on the bigger project.

Vik: I love this about the personalities! It might be really interesting to readers to revisit – I get so many questions about ‘procrastination’. But I wonder if it might just be about finding out how to give yourself the right choices to work better!  

So, can you tell us what is next for you?

Susan: I have my colour-coded spreadsheet of all the agents that I want to send it too! I’m at the stage now where I would just like to send it off and see. I am already thinking about book number two – I’ve got a Pinterest board ready for it and I just want to do it!

Vik: That’s the key question! How do we complete projects when we have so many ideas & love all the new things! But – your strategy sounds like it is working!

Are there things you do say no to when you are writing to buy you time?

Susan: I just take bits of time when there is a lull in ‘everyday life’!. I mean no one has time to sit an ‘write a novel’ – unless you are an established author with someone doing all their housework and cooking their meals!

Vik: Totally! No one really has those uninterrupted days!

Susan: And on the rare day you do have time, I never get more done!

Vik: So, most times, you just have to sit and do it!

Susan: Yeah – if the writing is not on the page, you can’t edit the words!

Want more?

Susan writes a Newsletter and I cannot recommend it enough if you want insightful and thoughtful perspectives on how to live a creative life.

You can read more about Susan’s words for 2020 – resilience and revolution – which, I think we can all agree to – over on her Instagram.  

You can also read Susan’s blog and here are links to some of the posts I think you will particularly love:

Other useful links from the interview:

Natasha Dennes Coaching:

Gretchen Rubin Rebel Tendency:

You can also sign up to my weekly newsletter containing regular prompts and tips on all things writing and working well. 

 

Beating back to work overwhelm

 *Author Edit – this was first published pre COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. However, much of the tips remain relevant – and important – for those working from home.* 

One of the topics I’ve been asked most about since my shift to freelance coaching is how to manage overwhelm. I’ve written about this here, but in this post I want to tackle the specific overwhelm that a first week back at work after a break can bring. 

Back to work: with dread or relief?

The first Monday of a new year is always a strange one. Many of us are ‘back to work’ after a fairly long break. A period in which we have abandoned our routines. We might be feeling a bit lost and out of practice. 

This year also sees the ushering in of a shiny new decade coming after the most politically depressing 2019. We are also aghast as the planet burns in bush fires across Australia. 

You might be facing inbox doom. You might be hitting a wall of meetings. You may be back to teaching and exams. 

It is indeed a tricky day to keep motivated and to keep the panic at bay.

However, how about doing it and feeling a little better? 

Being kinder to yourself? Ditching that meaningless ‘guilt’ and panic?

Proactive, not reactive: start as you mean to go on

I’m advocating an end to the ‘catching up’ mentality.  All this phrase does is reinforce the feeling that we are permanently on the backfoot – let that go! 

Ditto ‘guilt’ over what you didn’t do on holiday – you were on holiday, remember?! You are not meant to be working while you are on holiday. Repeat that after me.

You are back to it now. Start today. 

Below I’ve outlined 5 short exercises to do across the 5 days of this first week back. 

Take at least 10 minutes to yourself before the day starts if you can. If you are straight into meetings after the school run – make sure you TAKE a break. 

Be proactive, not reactive. 

That 10 minutes will make a huge difference to you, but it is not likely to impact on anyone else. Do it. 

5 ways for 5 days: quell that back to work overwhelm

Day 1: Take stock

Don’t rush in and panic fire off emails. Take it a little more slowly.  First up – check back on where were you before the break. Do you have anything you need to continue on with? Is there anything you can ditch/stop? Take one task. 

Also a note on that inbox – if there is spam; delete. If there are tasks that can no longer be actioned; delete. If you are in an endless chain ‘for your info’ message; Read, delete, move on. 

Day 2: Planning the focus of the week

You desk might be clean(er), you’ve chatted to the colleagues (or social media if you are a lone worker – hi!). You are back in the saddle. Now, prioritise what you are going to do over this week. Much like the old green cross code; ‘Stop, Look, Listen’. Take 10 minutes before you fire up the computer and assess what you need to do. Look back at your plans and lists. Listen to yourself. 

Day 3: Eat some frogs

If you have not already tackled a task that needs doing, but is not one you are feeling – prioritise that. Do it quickly.  Not so bad. You might even be able to stomach another one?

Day 4: Over the half-way point – reflect. 

It’s important to keep checking in with yourself. Each night I write my ‘done list’ because it shows me where my time is really going. It allows me to see where I’ve procrastinated, where something urgent and unexpected has landed, or where I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. 

Once you have an idea of what you are doing, assess what is realistic for today and tomorrow. 

Day 5: Made it! 

The end of that first week back. 

Celebrate what you have done. It’s likely been ‘less’ than you usually do, but you have done the work of getting back into a role. Back into a routine. Back on the commute, the school run. You might be doing new tasks, working with new clients. Starting new projects. 

Have a day off over the weekend if you can. 

Keep going at your pace

If you are still struggling with planning proactively and prioritisation – drop me an email to discuss a coaching call or package. The first Skype consultation (20 minutes) is a freebie to see if we can work together to get you back to you. You can read my thoughts on what you should think about before coaching here and my coaching manifesto here. 

Thinking of self-employment? How I got started

What have I learned in my first six months of self-employment? And how can you get started? 

I’m guessing you are reading this because you want know if you can make the leap.

You have an idea. You have done some market research – there is a ‘niche’ for your service or product.

Great, but what about making it happen?

I’m going to share some of the essential preparation, budgeting, planning, skills & kit that got my business up an running – on a shoestring budget.

If I can do this myself, I am sure you can.

Learning Curve 1: be prepared & have a budget

Before I thought about web-design, or branding, or marketing, I began with the absolute basics.

If you are thinking about a move to self-employed in the UK – go to the HRMC website and register as a sole trader (if that applies). Read all of the information. Call them. I found them pretty helpful.

I also had a small – tiny – buffer fund – to cover basic household bills and initial (shoestring!) startup costs.

This will tell you how long you have until you need to make an income. There are some good sources of advice on the financial side of setting up. I really found ‘The Freelance Mum’ by Annie Ridout useful – there is a comprehensive section in here outlining how to calculate your basic – minimum – costs.

I also sold a lot of books and clothes and things I didn’t need in order to bring in extra cash for small items when starting up e.g. a microphone for podcasting, an online business course. (A post on the benefits of a good clear out coming in the posts in this series on mindset).

Learning Curve 2: set a fairly tight timeline

I gave myself the ambitious target of setting up my own website and content within 1 month of leaving my old job. Why? Finances for one, but also because you have to just DO it. Try it. Be prepared for some things to work, others not. 

I see my business as a long-term investment – it is a work in progress. However, your business has to exist before it can grow and become your new job!

I managed it. I left my job on 03 May and launched my website on 31st May.

This is no mean feat – I literally went from zero to a functional website that hosted a blog, a podcast, an email newsletter, and then a shop with e-products.

Learning Curve 3: you will need to learn new skills

As much as my new business build on my existing expertise and skillset, I spent a LOT of time learning new skills.

I had no prior web design skills.

I had never completed any marketing or business courses prior to going self-employed.

Sounds scary… it was, but it was also exciting and I found a wealth of support, often generously shared for free.

Get on Google, Youtube, Pinterest and Instagram – and get busy searching for information. Get used to asking questions about how to do new things!

I would also recommend considering investing in some business training. I completed the 6 week online Red/Falmouth University Small Business Bootcamp course – it was really helpful on the business plan side of things.

My essential start-up kit

You will have to do your own research to assess what skills and kit you need to invest in depending on what you want to do; but, say you do want to offer online content – a blog, a podcast? Perhaps you are thinking about an e-course or e-book?

You will need ways to produce and promote that content.

Below is a list of my essentials that got me up and running:

  • WordPress package for my website – straightforward and has online support. (free version available – or Blogger is free if you just want a blog to start with)
  • Canva – templates for making professional logos, branding, and images. Essential for marketing and promotion. You can also make workbooks and e-books on here. (Free version available)
  • Unsplash – free stock photos for blog posts etc. Great if you don’t have your own high-quality images to use.
  • Pinterest – another under-utilised resource. I have found so many ‘how to’ pieces of content here. Great for both the technical aspects and the marketing and branding aspects.
  • Instagram – gets a bad press, but the place to go if you want to connect with other freelancers and writers. A huge amount of generosity to be found there as well as communities to join.
  • A Snowball Mic, Libsyn hosting and Garageband on my Mac for podcasting on a very tight budget! (Free podcasting hosting options are available)
  • Planoly – for scheduling Instagram. I’ve a separate post on scheduling for social media coming up in this series – a game-changer! (free version available)

 

The value of #NaNoWriMo for academic writers

November is  #NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – or the academic writer’s equivalent of #AcWriMo.

If you are not familiar with this – what lies behind these hashtags is a community that aims to get writers to commit to writing the draft of a novel -around 50,000 words – in the month of November.

It is, of course, a lot more flexible than that – some edit – and you don’t have to write the designated 50k target. Some are writing academic journal articles, books, grant proposals and so on.

The main point is that by joining in, you are making a commitment to prioritise your writing – and to seek support from a community of writers.

Joining in & dipping in and out

I have engaged with the #AcWri thread on many occasions over the years.

My first real engagement with #NaNoWriMo was last year when I finally admitted to myself that I really, really wanted to write that novel that had been percolating in my head for about 15 years!

I wrote a lot – just over 35, 000 words.

However, I was not as engaged with the process as I could have been – I was trying it out. I was in a very different place with my life and writing in 2018.

Why I do #NaNoWriMo

This year, my life and writing are in a drastically different place.

Firstly, I’m six months into my new career and life as a self-employed small business owner. I’m not doing #AcWriMo.

Secondly, while I am still unwell with chronic pain and illness, I no longer feel as mentally ill as I did last year when I was signed off from my old job with chronic stress and fatigue and pain.

My headspace and focus are gradually coming back to me in the aftermath of burnout. Recovery is slow, but it is certainly happening.

Thirdly, I have written most of the second draft of my first novel.

After dipping my toe in and out of NaNoWriMo last year, I really committed to my creative writing and signed up for a 6 month novel writing course.

I invested serious time and cash into my self and future career. I’m starting this #NaNoWriMo with a serious, clear plan and some fantastic feedback to work with.

Should we be aiming to write every day?

I have tried to write everyday for many years.

I usually fail.

It is not always possible to write everyday when you are busy and if you have other responsibilities and/or illness. Or, you simply want to have a break.

There. I’ve said it and broken the first ‘rule’ of productive writing.

But, breaks are good. Breaks are crucial.

Reading, thinking, mulling, pondering, scribbling, doodling, cutting and pasting, making a vision board, doing research. Staring into the middle distance.

Writing is more than words on a page.

I’m trying #NaNoWriMo – and to write every day – because sometimes that is what suits. I’ve a less stressful month. I want to spend time finishing this draft.

Write to your own rhythm

So, give it a go. If it works for you, fab. If not, you have not lost anything.

You will have gained a few words, ideas, writer friends.

And that’s the key – while the headline might be ‘write 50k words in a month’ – the reality is, #NaNoWriMo is what you need it to be.

 

Do you know your best writing practice?

If you struggle to prioritise your writing time, or find yourself stuck when you do, you might find my self-directed e-workbook useful. ‘Journalling for Academic Writers’ is designed to get you understanding your here and how, your why, and how you need to practice your writing. Available to purchase and download via my webpage. 

We don’t need to fear the blank page: strategies for stuck writers

What are you afraid of?

First up; what is it about the blank page that instils fear for you?

For some, it is fear that what will come out will not be good.

It may be that you have to get someone to read those words.

There might be a lot depending on the final document – for example, if you are writing a job application.

So, fear is understandable. It means you care. However, it is no good to let it paralyse you.

Understand your fear and then manage it.

Commit to overcoming the fear: schedule writing time and stick to it

Seems obvious, but you can’t tackle a blank page if you never take time to write. And yes, I’m talking taking time again. We can’t invent time, we have to choose the things we do in the time we have.

It might mean saying no to other things.

It might mean rethinking your idea/ideals about how and when you can write.

What do you really need to write? Think about how much time? What kind of space? What resources and research?

These factors change depending on what you are writing. While it’s good to know what works for you as a writing routine, sometimes it’s good to change things up…

Fill in the blanks

The main thing is you start to write. Something.

Some people write the title, play around with fonts. These might be viewed as procrastination techniques (a post on this coming soon), but they are also making you stay on the page.

It is no longer blank.

You might also want to do some free-writing. This is not going to be the final piece, but it is the warm up.

Free-writing gets your ideas out there. We think better as we write.

Skeleton structure

Start with some big level outlining. That could be as simple as Abstract, Intro, Section 1…

Page is filling up.

There is no ‘writing’ as content/analysis there yet, but you are still on the page. You are putting one foot/word in front of the other.

In no particular order?

The beauty of sectioning out a blank page is that you can start to write where you are ‘at’. You may have the headlines of your abstract – cool.

You might however, have finished some analysis of data and want to write about a core theme. Do it.

You can move things around – only if they are there.

A living document

You can’t write what you want to be read in one go.

In other words, the first draft is the first draft.

We all have heard of the crappy/rough/shitty first draft. So, learn to embrace that.

First time around – the writing is for your eyes only.

Once you have edited it a couple of times – GET FEEDBACK!! (another post on fear of the reader coming).

Step away

Crucial – get distance & time between your writing and re-writing. Ditto editing and restructuring and proofreading.

If the Pomodoro technique is for you – use that. Sit and write in 20 minute blocks.

If working in longer stretches is for you, fine. Just remember to factor in breaks.

Words can be re-written; they should be.

The beauty – and for some pain – of writing is that is can, and will, be changed.

Writing is a craft. It takes work. The more we do, the better we become.

If you want to write, if you need to write, then start with a simple sentence.

‘Today, I am going to write….’

Keep going and be kind to yourself

Writing will take longer than you think.

Your writing is better than you think.

Writing is a powerful tool.

You have got this.

Check out my self-directed e-workbook, ‘Journalling for academic writers’ – helping you to find short periods of time to work out your best writing practice. Then prioritise your writing. 

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