Setting Boundaries as a Ward Against Anxiety

At the long-ago recommendation of Erik Wecks, a local-to-me author and friend, I started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

(I’ve been picking up books like this lately because I want to dig deeper in my work – both my fiction and my non-fiction. The authors that I admire the most are the ones who bare their souls on the page – something that’s hard to do if you’re someone like me who hates digging in to her own feelings.)

In it, Brown talks about learning to let ourselves be vulnerable in order to live more “Wholehearted” lives. To get a taste, check out this TED Talk she did a few years back.

Brown’s insights on the way we as humans shield ourselves from being vulnerable have been eye-opening to me. I haven’t come across a single chapter yet that doesn’t cause me to say, “Oh, yeah. I do that.”

Last night, though, I didn’t just see a glimmer of myself reflected – instead, it was as though I came face-to-face with myself in a mirror.

Numbness as a shield against anxiety

In the section, Brown talks about how people try to shield themselves from uncomfortable feelings like vulnerability and anxiety through alcohol and pills, drugs, television, and anything else that takes the edge off the pain.

We’ve all done this, at least on occasion:

  • A glass of wine – or three – at the end of long day.
  • Binge watching a TV show until we fall asleep on the couch.
  • Scrolling manically through social media and email to keep from thinking why we’re so anxious in the first place.

What struck me last night was an observation she made on how her research participants could be divided into two camps:

Group A defines the challenge of anxiety as finding ways to manage and soothe the anxiety, while Group B defines the problem as changing the behaviors that lead to anxiety.

“Clearly, I’m in Group A,” I told myself, despairing. “I’m constantly stressed out, always trying to do too much.”

Brown goes on to talk about how differently Group A and B deal with things like email and voice mail:

  • Group A goes to great lengths to control everything, answer everything, deal with everything.
  • Group B goes to great lengths to minimize the distractions: unsubscribe, tell people they won’t be available, set expectations and boundaries.

And the strangest thing happened. As I read on, I realized that somehow, even though I still think of myself as being in Group A, I’ve transitioned into Group B.

I’ve spent years trying to do it all and failing miserably. Too overwhelmed and anxious to sleep, finishing a bottle of wine on a Wednesday night just to try to dull that both of panic jolting through my chest so I can finally relax.

When my husband used to tell me that I needed to cut back on things because I was too stressed, my answer was that I should be able to do it all.

That I just needed to get better, faster, tougher. Smarter. That my inability to do everything was because I was a failure.

This quote from Brown hit me hard:

“The participants who struggled the most with numbing, Group A, explained that reducing anxiety meant finding ways to numb it, not changing the thinking, behaviors, or emotions that created anxiety.

“I hated every minute of this part of the research. I’ve always looked for better ways to manage my exhaustion and anxiety. I wanted help “living like this,” not suggestions on how to “stop living like this.” My struggle mirrored the struggle that I heard from the folks who talked the most about numbing.”

Learning to set boundaries

Reading this last night made me realize that slowly and without even quite realizing it, I’ve learned to set boundaries in my life.

Now, when I find myself overwhelmed by responsibilities, I take a look at how I got there and create a plan for avoiding that path in the future. I create new sets of rules and boundaries for myself. I add new items to the list of things I say “no” to.

As I read through the section, I began to realize just how many boundaries I’ve set in the past year:

  • I set aside time in the week for writing fiction, and tell my clients I’m unavailable.
  • I no longer check my email first thing in the morning.
  • I honor myself and my pre-existing deadlines by saying no to work I don’t have time to do.
  • I keep from letting the world hijack my day by not listening to the news or checking social media in the mornings.
  • I no longer work on evenings or weekends, except in very rare cases.
  • I no longer say yes to social events I don’t want to go to.

Until I read this chapter, I hadn’t realized just how powerful these boundaries have been in reclaiming my life from anxiety.

I waited so long to set them because I was afraid – afraid to say no to clients, afraid to say no to friends and family. Again, it’s as though Brown is living inside my head when she writes these words:

“We have to believe that we are enough in order to say, “Enough!” For women, setting boundaries is difficult because the shame gremlins are quick to weigh in: “Careful saying no. You’ll really disappoint these folks. Don’t let them down. Be a good girl. Make everyone happy.” For men, the gremlins whisper, “Man up. A real guy could take this on and then some. Is the little mamma’s boy just too tired?””

It took me too many years to realize how to set boundaries, because a voice inside my head kept telling me, “Who are you to say no? Who are you to think you deserve the weekend free? Who are you to be all high and mighty?”

Well, I have an answer.

I’m me.

And I don’t have to answer to anyone for the boundaries I’ve set for myself.


What are the boundaries you’ve set up in your life? How do they help you cope with anxiety and overwhelm? Let me know in the comments!

On Medium: An Evernote Productivity System for Creatives

I’ve had a few people ask about my to-do list/productivity system recently, so I decided to write an in-depth post about it.

It’s basically an Evernote notebook that I set up based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done method – essentially, a digital version of his series of folders and notes. In it, I plan out my tasks for the week and keep track of all the bigger picture projects I have going on in my life.

As a bonus, because it’s in Evernote, I can link to other notes and subfolders within the program.

(I love Evernote.)

For a long time I struggled to find a system that was flexible enough to accommodate my ever-changing workload, digital enough to travel with me, and convenient enough that I’d actually use it.

Enter my Evernote Productivity System. Evernote productivity system screenshot

This system works particularly well for me because I feel more at ease when I know exactly what’s going on in my day/week. Will it work for you? Maybe, maybe not. If you like to have minute-by-minute control of your day and never lose track of your tasks, it just might. If you prefer to roll with the punches and work on whatever you feel like at the moment, maybe not.

Either way, it doesn’t hurt to check it out. Even just reading this post might inspire you to think differently about your own to-do management system.

If this sounds vaguely interesting to you, here’s the post:

An Evernote System for Self-Employed Creatives.

I’ve been wanting to experiment more with publishing on Medium, and since I was recently invited to join the Writers on Writing publication I decided to make this my first topic. I have to say I love formatting posts in the Medium ecosystem – it’s very pretty. I haven’t tried actually drafting anything there yet, since I don’t trust my drafts not to disappear. I’ll stick to Scrivener there, thank you very much.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the post! If you end up using all or any of this system, I’d love to hear about it.

How do you to-do? I love learning from other people’s productivity systems. Let me know how you structure your day in the comments!

New To Freelancing? The 3 Things I Wish I’d Known

Hey there! This post is part of a series of freelancing advice articles from various bloggers, coordinated by invoicing app Invoice2Go. If you’re looking for a simple way to invoice through a phone app, definitely check them out. And as for all the usual disclosures: I’m not getting a cut of any sort – I just dig this project of theirs as a way to support the freelance community. 🙂


I hate making mistakes.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a tendency to be way too hard on myself when I did something wrong – even if no one else noticed or cared.

In fact, that perfectionist tendency is what has often kept me from trying something new, or pushing myself too far. After all, if I don’t push myself too hard then I can’t fail, right?

On the surface that may be right, but I’ve also started to realize that the safe way is a boring way to go through life.

I’ve forced myself out of my comfort zone in a lot of scary ways, but by far the most life-changing was when I decided to stop playing it safe at a desk job and start make a career as a freelance writer. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way – but I’ve also avoided a lot of pitfalls by learning from freelancers who went before me.

In the spirit of paying it forward, here my biggest pieces of freelancing advice.

(Oh, and by the way? I spent the last week visiting my family back on the farm, where my 5-year-old niece sagely told me, “If we make mistakes, that means we’re learning.” Learn from the rugrat’s wisdom, everyone.)

1. Sow your (marketing) oats widely

Last week I was talking to a friend, a real estate agent who’s just getting started in the business. He mentioned to me that he’s been surprised lately when prospects he talked to months ago contact him out of the blue – he’d written them off, but they were just biding their time.

That sort of thing happens to me (and other freelancers I know) all the time. A few days before that conversation, I received two emails about prospective work: one from a client I’d written for two years previously, and one from a new prospect who’d been referred to me by a client I’d worked for nearly three years ago.

Part of marketing is about planting seeds, and understanding that those seeds will grow in ways you can’t anticipate. My current biggest client is the result of a friendship I struck up during a networking event. We were both unemployed and just enjoyed each other’s company – but when my new friend got a job at a creative agency several months later, I was the copywriter she knew to call.

2. You probably won’t make money on your passion topics

I see this question again and again in freelancing forums and comment sections:

“I’m passionate about writing about [antiques/spirituality/yoga/golfing/knitting]. How can I find people who will pay me to write about this?”

The hard reality is that you probably can’t. When I first started, I wanted to write about cycling, crafting, travel, and beer. They were things I was passionate about – but they’re also things that a lot of people are passionate about.

I’ve sold articles to travel websites and beer magazines – and I even sold an article on bicycle crafts to a fashionable bike style magazine. I wrote for the Brewers Association trade magazine. I wrote for cycling blogs. But trying to scrape together a career of $50 travel site articles and “free exposure” blog posts was frustrating. Paying markets for these topics were few and far between – and competition was fierce.

It took me ages to learn this, but in industries that people are passionate about, there’s a steady supply of writers who are willing to write about the topics for pennies – or for free.

I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t pursue writing about topics you’re passionate about – just understand that it’s going to be much harder to find well-paying gigs in a popular topic.

3. Think sideways to break into a new niche

Another question I see a lot is how do you get clips to break into X or Y niche. The trick is by making your clips work double duty.

Let me tell you what I mean.

The only clips I had when I started out were travel writing. For the reasons outlined above, I wanted to break into better-paying niches – so I pitched a travel article to a parenting magazine. Sweet! I now had a parenting* clip to add to my portfolio.

I’ve used the same trick to break into trade magazines, cycling magazines, corporate blogging, and eventually into my current primary work writing B2B content marketing pieces for software-as-a-service companies.

(If you want more specific examples, I wrote about this in more detail on Make A Living Writing a couple of years back.)

When you’re starting out, take the work you can get, but don’t be satisfied with it. With every piece you write, scheme how it can advance your portfolio and break you into the next niche. With some strategic thinking, you’ll make it to your dream niche.

(* I have no kids. Bonus advice #4 – don’t worry about only trying to write what you know. As I told one of my current clients when they asked if I knew anything about forklifts, “Nope, but I know a lot about research.”)

Was this helpful? I’d love to hear your own tips – or challenges! Leave ‘em in the comments.

9 Ways To Invest in Your Writing Business

(Fun fact!: 500,000 Venezuelan bolivares used to be worth about $300 USD. It is now worth $0 USD because they reissued their currency. Change your unstable currencies in the airport *before* you fly home, kids!)


I like to set a theme for each year — particularly for my freelance writing business. This year’s theme? Pruning back the wrong opportunities, and investing in my business.

Of course, I’ve been investing in my business all along. I joined the Freelance Writers Den. I took classes with people like Carol Tice and Ed Gandia. I invested in the software and tools, like Freshbooks and a properly-functioning laptop, I needed to run my business effectively. But this year, I’m actively seeking out investment opportunities I know will help my business grow.

Most of those things do cost money, but I just want to say this off the bat: You don’t need to have a lot of money to start investing in your business.

But owning a writing business is no different than owning any other type of business — you need to be constantly investing profits and energy back into it if you want to see real growth.

1. Invest in the right tools

Unlike starting a restaurant, starting a writing business doesn’t require much capital. You can turn in decent work using just an ancient laptop with spotty Wi-Fi, but as you establish yourself it’s worth investing in proper tools — for your own sanity if nothing else!

Consider the tools you need to do your job well and hassle-free: a new laptop, a good desk, software (like Freshbooks and Dragon Dictation), a high-quality monitor, a standing desk, an ergonomic chair….

These things don’t need to be expensive, but you need to be able to count on your tools.

2. Invest in your education

One of the best ways to grow your business is by increasing your skills. Whether you’re interested in picking up a new type of project — like case studies or white papers — or breaking into a new industry, seek out courses, podcasts, blogs, and webinars. Some of these resources may be paid, others may just require an investment of time.

3. Invest in a long-term side project

One way to invest in your business is by taking time to work on a personal project that will pay off long-term dividends. (These dividends don’t always have to be monetary.) One copywriter friend is currently taking time from her busy client schedule to create a webinar that she hopes will net her bigger and better projects. My side projects are my novels, and this blog.

Invest in your future by building something today that will support you tomorrow.

4. Invest in professional conferences

Attending a professional conference is a good way to not only learning new skills and meet new people, it’s also a good way to demonstrate to potential clients that you’re serious about your business.

In this recent High Income Business Writing podcast with Ed Gandia, Jennifer Gregory talks about some of the connections she made by attending Content Marketing World last year. It’s a really inspiring story about putting yourself out there, and treating your business as a business.

After listening to that podcast, I signed up for Digital Summit PDX next month. I’d been on the fence, but decided to take the leap and get serious about networking with other professionals in my field.

(If you’re going to be there, hit me up! I’d love to meet for coffee/happy hour.)

5. Invest in quality peer networks

What kind of people do you want to be surrounded by? Seek out those people, and invest in building relationships with them.

Since we’ve moved to Portland I’ve been developing an amazing network of writer friends. Some of these have been chance encounters — like the two science fiction writers who introduced themselves to me in a coffee shop because they noticed I was using Scrivener. But much of this networks has been built by me deliberately saying yes to as many opportunities as I can. Being proactive in asking people out for coffee. Attending readings and introducing myself to people at the table beside me. Going to meet-up groups and networking events.

I’m lucky in that Portland has a very interconnected speculative fiction writing community, but even if your town doesn’t have a good writing community, you can seek out these relationships online. I’ve spoken before about my freelance writing accountability group. I’ve never met these women in person, but they’ve become a core part of my freelance business.

6. Invest in professional memberships

As part of creating your personal network, it can be beneficial to fork over some dough for a reputable professional membership. Maybe you could join a trade organization, or, like I did when I was first starting out, join a paid forum like the Freelance Writers Den. The quality of the networking you’ll find in these organizations is often much more professional than what you may find in less formal organizations or forums.

7. Invest in professional touches

If you want to be seen as a pro, you need to look like a pro. Get professional business cards. Invest in a solid website. Get some nice headshots. None of these things need to cost you a ton of money. Try bartering with a friend who’s a photographer or website designer. Or opt for pre-designed business cards on Vistaprint.

As your business grows, revisit your initial marketing collateral from time to time to see if you can step it up. I’ve always done my own website design, for example, but this year I finally invested in a professional theme for this site. It still required work on my end, but it was approximately 1,000,000 less hours of my own time that went into it. I consider that $40 well spent!

8. Invest in your personal growth

This one is a bit more nebulous. It’s important to remember that you, a human, are at the center of your writing business. If you’re not taking care of your personal stuff your business will suffer.

Hire a business coach. Go to a therapist. Pick up a self-help book or two. Start meditating. Get out and walk every morning. Spend time with your family. Deal with your childhood trauma. Invest in your relationship with your partner.

You’re both your best boss and your best employee — take care of yourself.

9. Invest in a financial buffer

At the beginning of 2015, I was completely stressed out about money. I had enough to pay my half of the bills — most of the time — but I didn’t feel stable. I kept working my way up the pay scale with every new gig I picked up, though, and by the end of 2015 I had given myself a raise and had three months worth of business expenses saved up in my business’ savings account.

Talk about a stress-reliever.

To me, one of the most important things in running a freelance business is financial stability. That’s what keeps you from saying yes to jobs that aren’t right for you or getting trapped by clients you hate working for. It’s what lets you sleep at night, even if you just lost a big client or have a surprise bill come due.

So while you’re shelling out for courses, a new laptop, and a ticket to Content Marketing World, be sure to be putting a portion of your money aside for savings, too. Your future self will thank you


What are some ways you’ve invested in your business? I’d love to hear about them – leave a comment!

Jessie and the Dictator: an Update

Since I wrote my last post on using Dragon Dictation for writing, several of my friends and internet acquaintances have jumped on board with the software. More and more people are seeing dictation as a way to live a healthier, more productive writerly life.

It can still be a pain in the butt, though, as I outlined in my last post.

I’ve been using dictation more and more as a tool in both my fiction and in my freelance work over the last six months. Despite my initial frustrations and the steep learning curve, I’m starting to be quite happy with the results.

If you’re just starting out and as frustrated as I was, take heart. There’s hope!

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Fiction

When I first started dictating, I had a tough time making it work for fiction. I think in part by typing, and it was awkward to force my thoughts to flow as I spoke them. I could puzzle out plot problems, but I couldn’t draft a scene.

In the last few weeks, though, I’ve actually switched to where I’m dictating my first drafts more often than typing them. One reason for this is that I’m feeling easily distracted these days. Even when I turn on Freedom and turn off my phone, I still have a hard time sitting down and doing the work.

When that work is drafting a new scene, I’ve found the fastest way to get words on the screen is to take myself on a distraction-free walk and just talk it out.

Originally, I felt like the first draft quality of a dictated draft was pretty terrible. But as I’ve gotten more accustomed to speaking my scenes instead of typing them, the quality has improved drastically. I’m now really happy with the scenes, and they require only a small amount of editing.

I’ve also gotten waaaay better at writing a scene from scratch, imagining it as I go rather than having to dictate a scene where I already know what happens.

(I almost always outline my books, but at the scene level I often feel like I’m wandering in the dark. Outlining will definitely be a topic of another blog post.)

Freelancing

While dictating fiction turns out to be a good way to get away from my desk for a while, when writing for clients I’m normally still tethered to my computer as I dictate. That’s because I need to have my research, interviews, and reference materials in front of me – unless I’m dictating an opinion-based blog post or something that I can fabricate out of the information that’s already in my head.

This was already going well in the last post, so I’ll just say it’s continuing to be a productive way to write non-fiction for me.

The software

Some of the frustrations that I had using Dragon Dictation came from my own quirks, and those are mostly all ironed out.

Mostly.

Here’s a few tricks I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make the process easier for you, too.

“New Line” vs “New File”

For the longest time I’ve had a problem where Dragon would open a new file about 30% of the time I said “New Line”. It would drive me batty, but I finally realized just yesterday that you can disable built in commands.

Just go to Manage Commands in the menu, search for the command you hate, and click the box that says “Active.”

Dragon dictation screenshotHopefully that will solve my “new file” problem.

The right microphone increases accuracy

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to buy a new headset and see if that helps. I ended up getting the Andrea NC-181VM USB On-Ear Monaural Computer Headset, and that helps tremendously. According to the internet, the USB connection provides way better accuracy, and the Andrea NC-181VM seemed to offer the best quality for the cash. (It’s $32 on Amazon.) It’s relatively comfortable – even while I’m wearing my glasses – and seems to do a good job of recognizing my voice.

Plus, it makes me look extremely professional.

Jessie wearing headphones
How may I take your order?

Quirky capitalization and punctuation

I often edit as I’m going along, if I’m standing in front of my computer. For that reason, where the cursor is on the screen doesn’t always correlate to where Dragon thinks the cursor is.

It took me forever to realize this.

For example, if you tell Dragon to correct a word and then manually move the cursor back to the end of the line, Dragon still thinks it’s back in the middle of the sentence. Therefore, if you say the word “period”, Dragon will add a period, then automatically attempt to capitalize the first letter of the word it thinks is still to the right of the cursor. If you notice this happening, simply commands Dragon to “go to end.”

Rampant running backwards

This still happens from time to time if I try to correct a word, especially once the document becomes large and cumbersome. If any of you know how to stop this, let me know. It makes me crazy.

It’s worth taking the plunge

Overall, Dragon has really been a worthwhile investment for me, both in terms of getting myself up and moving, and also in how productive am able to be when I’m writing. It still has its quirks, but it’s definitely worth it for me.

My biggest takeaway over the past few months is that it’s worth it to make the investment in a good microphone, and to take the time to get up the learning curve. You’ll be grateful you did.

Is Quitting Your Job to Pursue Your Passion BS? Yes and No.

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook the other day and I can’t quite get it out of my head: Quitting Your Job to Pursue Your Passion is Bullshit, by Janelle Quibuyen. Go take a read. It’s short.

If you read the comments you’ll see that a lot of people missed Janelle’s point – which is that the freelance life is sold with a lot of fluffy words and romance, and that those romantic ideas tend to place higher value on a lifestyle which often comes with unexamined privilege. Her point is that when we romanticize “living your passion” and call entrepreneurs “courageous”, we’re putting them on a pedestal they (we – I’ll put myself in that category) don’t deserve.

I love this line:

I am no more brave than the migrant worker picking your strawberries to send remittances to family in their home country. I am no more courageous than the recently-graduated millennial who works in a cubicle 9 hours a day to pay off massive student loans. I am no more of a boss than the working class mother with three jobs who feeds her children.

Someone told me recently that I work harder than anyone they know. I fervently disagreed. Yes, I’m dedicated to my job. Yes, I go above and beyond. Yes, I’m willing to put in the extra hours and to make sacrifices to work for my future and grow my business. But I’m hardly the hardest worker I know.

Jorge was of my favorite chefs at a restaurant I once worked at. He was so fast and efficient that he could feed an entire restaurant by himself, and he was always smiling. Plus, he made the best food. He had a wife and a super cute kid, and Jorge worked two jobs – often in the same day – to support them. Once when he mentioned he’d started a third job I asked him when his days off were. He thought for a moment, then told me, “Tuesday evenings.”

Jorge works way, way harder than me.

I work hard, but I don’t work as hard as my grandpa did or my father does out on the farm. I don’t work as hard as my mom does with her elementary school students, doing lesson plans every evening and getting to school before sunrise every morning.

My mom and dad at my cousin's wedding.
I love these guys.

I didn’t quit my day job because I was courageous. I quit it because I couldn’t stand sitting at a desk anymore. I didn’t so much take a leap of faith from a stable platform I was afraid to leave, I made a smart, calculated play to get out of a place I’d begun to feel trapped by.

I haven’t worked odd jobs and traveled because I was brave, I did it because I’m apparently allergic to consistent work. It hasn’t been courageous, it’s been fun-scary-stupid-fun.

And it’s been possible in a large part because I had a safety net.

That’s another point Janelle makes in her piece. It’s sexier to talk about the courage of an entrepreneur than to talk about the safety net that makes that courage possible.

The friend who shared this article originally on Facebook found it depressing – and I think that’s part of the reason people tend to focus on the courage than the logistics. No one wants to hear that the only way I was able to quit my day job was because I’d worked every night and every weekend for 6 months on freelance projects until I built up a tiny nest egg, then I went back to waiting tables four days a week to support myself while I grew my freelance business. I had a supportive partner, but I still had to pay my half of the bills – the bicycle industry isn’t the most lucrative field.

Not having kids made this easier – I could work crazy hours and pick up weekend doubles without worrying about childcare. I could do my freelance work in the middle of the day without having to work around naptimes. And when I finally quit waiting tables, my partner and I could afford to take a temporary cut in my paycheck because we didn’t have a third mouth to feed.

The ability to tolerate the risk of starting a freelance business is part privilege – you have to have a safety net, whether that’s savings, a side gig, a supportive partner, whatever – but it’s also part temperament.

What a lot of people miss in their romantic idea of freelancing is that you are literally starting your own business.

Friends tell me how much they would like to be able to spend all day writing – but when I explain I actually spend most of my day as Bookkeeper, Marketer, Sales, Dishwasher, Accounts Payable, Webmaster, and Customer Service Representative, they brush it off. “At least you’re doing what you love!”

And I am. But I love being a business owner and wearing all those hats. If you don’t have the discipline and business sense to be your own best boss and your own best employee, to deliver on time every time, and to keep doing it day after day (even on weekends if necessary), even when it all feels like you’re not moving forward at all…. Maybe freelancing’s not for you.

And that’s OK.

If you’re stuck on the idea that quitting your day job to follow your passion is romantic, then, yes, Janelle’s article is depressing. For me, though, I found it honest.

Freelancing is difficult, and it’s not for everybody. But the same could be said of any profession.

You have to follow your passion, yes, but you also have to find the life that’s right for you.

Whatever you do, just go into it with your eyes open and don’t let yourself get sold by flowery language. You’re smarter than that.

Jessie and the Dictator—Increasing Productivity with Dragon Dictation

About four months ago I finally bit the bullet and threw down the $150 for a copy of Dragon Dictation by Nuance.

It seemed like every writing podcast I listened to was extolling the virtues of using dictation software.

  • I was going to write 5,000 words an hour.
  • I was going to be 1000% more productive.
  • I would never have wrist pain again.
  • I was going to lose weight, and probably live longer.

It sounds like a lot to ask from a speech-to-text program, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably as skeptical as I was as I typed in my credit card information. Would using Dragon Dictation really cause a magical unicorn to appear in my office and put rainbows in my coffee every morning?

(No. The answer to that is no. Sorry.)

Well, I’ve been using Dragon fairly regularly since I bought it – both for my freelance writing and for fiction – and I have some thoughts to share.

First up, dictation is pretty rad. But it has its challenges.

All the things that people say about dictation are fairly true. It does make you more productive, and reduces the physical strain of typing. You can use it while you’re out on walks. I’ve dictated blog posts and scenes from my novel while cooking dinner.

There’s also quite a big learning curve, and sometimes Dragon becomes infested by gremlins that are incredibly frustrating.

(Gremlins, but no unicorns? Get your priorities straight, Nuance.)

Nonfiction vs. Fiction

Because I’m using dictation for both freelance copywriting and for fiction, I’m basically having two different experiences with it.

Nonfiction

When it comes to my freelance work, dictating is faster. I can definitely speak faster than I type and so long as the dictation software gets it right the first time, it saves me time. Because my freelance client work is mostly fairly analytical – I’m writing about things like adaptive learning software and sales CRM software – I’m finding it fairly easy just to gather my thoughts and say what I want to say.

My freelance clients are pretty specialized, so there’s always a bit of a learning curve for the Dragon dictation software to pick up new industry jargon and terms. I’ve found it’s pretty good, but when it comes to proper names – like my clients’ company names – I’ve had a hell of a time training it to type certain things. In that case, I just develop shorthand and then use the find and replace function during the editing process.

The other aspect that I’ve found dictation software to be helpful in is transcribing interviews. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe an interview and you’re not a pro at it, you know that it sucks. You spend a lot of time tabbing back and forth between your document and your audio file, rewinding, typing, rewinding, typing….

Previously, I had budgeted at least twice the amount of time as the interview itself in order to transcribe it. So that meant a 30 minute interview would take me an hour to transcribe.

Now, with the dictation software, I just put on my headphones, play the audio file, and speak along with the person that I’m interviewing. I still have to rewind from time to time, but it normally only takes me about five minutes longer then the interview itself. It’s become a huge timesaver.

Fiction

Using dictation with freelancing is been really great, but I’m not having is easy time using it for fiction. It slows me down in ways I, frankly, expected it to.

What I mean is this. Sometimes it seems like when I’m writing fiction, my best work pours straight out of my fingertips, bypassing my brain and thought process altogether. (You know what I mean, right?) When I’m dictating, I think a lot more about what I’m trying to say, and have a tough time getting into that creative fugue state.

In a recent podcast, Joanna Penn talks about her experience dictating the first draft of her latest novel. She’s just been getting started with Dragon, too, and I resonated with her observation that dictating produces a poorer quality first draft than she’s used to.

But I also think that learning to write fiction via dictation is just something that will take time. Some days it seems to work, and some days it doesn’t. I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop typing up first drafts, but I am committed to getting better at first drafting by dictation.

Why bother with dictation?

For me, dictation has two main benefits.

The first is that I can often the get first draft done faster then if I type it out – with my freelance work at least. I don’t have to wait for my typing skills to catch up with my thoughts – especially when I’m typing a lot of jargony technical words that I may end up getting my fingers twisted around. I haven’t found it to be a timesaver in my fiction yet, but in freelancing – and in blogging – it does save me time.

The second benefit is increased activity. I dictated the first draft of this blog post while out on a walk. I’d been staring at a computer all day long, and was starting to get what I call “screen sickness” – that slightly nauseous, glazed feeling when you’ve been staring at a screen too long.

In the middle of particularly busy days it can be really hard to get myself out and go for a walk. I’m already behind my schedule by an hour today, and I know I’m not going to check everything off the list – do I really have time to go wander around an hour?

(This is the subject for totally different blog post, but the answer is a resounding yes. If you want to live a healthy, happy life you don’t not have time to go for a walk.)

But, with dictation, I can take a walk without falling even farther behind. On a brisk stroll through my nearby neighborhood rose garden, I can get a fairly serviceable first draft blog post of 1500 words.

Yeah, I may sound a little odd as I’m walking by people speaking punctuation, but hey, it’s Portland. I could be on a unicycle playing bagpipes.

Here’s a devils advocate thought for a moment, though: sure, it’s good for my body to go walk around, but I’m really giving myself a break if I’m forcing my brain to continue composing first draft materials as I walk? Would I be better served by leaving my phone and headphones at home, and letting my mind wander aimlessly?

Maybe. But that’s a luxury for a week less busy.

It’s just not not just walks in the park speaking into a headset though. When I’m dictating straight into my computer, it gives me more freedom of motion, as well. If I set up my computer up on my standing desk (a.k.a. my dresser), and use a Bluetooth headset, then I’m not tethered in one spot through the tips of my fingers. Instead, I can paced back and forth, do squats, dance around, etc.

My dresser – my standing desk.
My super-sophisticated home office standing desk.

 

What equipment do you need?

Beyond the software, I haven’t bought any other fancy equipment – and my results have been pretty good. I’m considering purchasing a better headset that’s really designed for noise canceling, etc., because if I was able to improve the software’s accuracy even more, it would save me even more time. As it is, I think the software is about 90 to 95% accurate for me.

Right I’m using either those white Apple headphones that come with every Apple product, or one of those dorky Bluetooth headset by Jabra, which I bought for about $20. The plug-in headset seems to be a bit more accurate, and from my research it looks like you have to spend quite a bit on a Bluetooth headset for it to match the quality. I’ve tried just using my laptop’s internal speakers, as well, and I find that accuracy rates goes down.

Hey, wait. Doesn’t my Mac come with dictation software already?

Yeah, yeah it does. And although it’s fairly decent, it was frustrating enough to me that I decided to drop the money on Dragon Dictation.

And I’m happy I did.

The Mac’s native software doesn’t have as robust an ability to correct mistakes or navigate through your text. Also, it doesn’t learn in quite the same way that Dragon Dictation does. Dragon will take things that you commonly correct into account, and can be trained both by you speaking, and by feeding it chunks of text that you’ve written with all of your industry jargon, etc. in it.

Also, the ability to dictate things while I’m walking and have it translate audio file has been really helpful – that’s a feature Mac’s native dictation didn’t have.

Is dictation always super magical?

No. Sometimes Dragon makes me want to throw my laptop through the wall.

Sometimes I’ll say something totally innocuous, and because the software for some reason thought that I said “Capitalize Grand Canyon”, the cursor starts scrolling madly through my document trying to find the phrase Grand Canyon – which of course, is nowhere to be found.

I haven’t figured out a way to stop this in mid-run, which means that I just have to wait it out – extremely frustrating if I’m in the middle of Deep Important Thoughts and the document is large. With Scrivener, I can just close out of the program and restart it. In Pages, however, you’re screwed until the curser gets all the way to wherever it’s going.

Nuance’s support is pretty non-existent, too. I’ve sent them a few support tickets when I had problems, and I’ve never once gotten a response. Googling solutions to specific problems normally revealed other people asking the same questions in forums – usually to be told that there is no solution to that problem. The software is constantly being updated, though, and it sounds like Dragon is getting better with every iteration.

Is dictation for you?

I don’t know. I can’t answer that for you. And, of course, purchasing Dragon is a big chunk of cash to plop down. If you’re curious to try dictation out and you have a Mac, you can always experiment with the native dictation program. Here’s how to set it up.

(Sorry, I don’t know anything about PCs.)

You might, like me, get addicted and want to pay for something better. Or you might figure it’s not for you.

Either way, Dragon offers a 30-day money back deal, so you can always give it a shot and see what you think.

Have you used dictation software? What did you think? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

(*Disclaimer: Nuance didn’t give me one red cent to write about this – I’m just sharing my personal experiences.)

A Creative’s Guide to Staying on Track with Resolutions

This is about the time of year when shiny New Year’s resolutions start to look a little tarnished.

Those thousand fiction words a day I was writing at the beginning of January? Yeah, not so much now. All that sugar I’m not supposed to be eating? Well, I may have made brownies a few days ago. And I may keep sneaking bites of my husband’s desserts.

I wrote last week about one important tool you can use to keep on track with resolutions and goals: accountability groups. But I think one of the biggest things you can do on your own is to create a system designed to support your new goals.

I’ve noticed a pattern in the goals of mine that have succeeded. It goes something like this: resolutions that begin life without intention and support never last for long, while those that I boost with good habits tend to get met.

I don’t know about you, but as I look back over the last month I can definitely see that same pattern emerging. The goals that I built up support around have actually gotten met. The ones that I just wished out into the universe? Nope.

Here’s the problem I see a lot with creatives, though: we resist building structure around our art.

We tell ourselves that we’ll wait for the Muse to strike, instead of committing to carving out 30 minutes every lunch break to practice our craft. We tell ourselves we’re too tired at the end of the day to write or paint or play music, instead of making the effort to arrange our schedules to support our art.

But I say that building structure around your goals is especially important for creative people.

Are you willing to take that step?

Do you want to carve out time for the work you love?

Or do you want to make the same resolution next January?

Set your intentions

I love this fantastic post by James Clear on setting intentions. In it, he talks about a study in which three groups were asked about their exercise habits. The first group (control) was simply asked how often they exercise. The second group was given a motivational pamphlet and speech. The third group was given the same motivation, but also asked to complete the statement, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Two weeks later, the third group was 3 times more likely to have exercised than the first two groups.

The moral is that simply saying “I want to write and submit a short story this month” isn’t nearly as effective as saying “I’ll write 300 words every morning before breakfast.”

Give yourself the best chance at hitting your goals by explicitly stating where, when, and how you’ll do them.

Set up a system

Great goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum – rather, they’re reached as a result of hundreds of tiny steps. Try thinking of your goal not as one single thing, but as a system of steps and habits.

For example, I’m working on the rough draft of a novella that I hope to have done by the end of February. To do that, I need to write to 20,000 words. Taking into account that I normally only write five days a week, I need to start writing 1000 words a day. I can write 1000 words in an hour – less time if I’m really into the story.

Knowing all that, I know I need to sit down at my desk one hour earlier every day during the week and get out those thousand words before I check my email and get sucked into client work.

Once I’ve set this system of Time + Place + Avoid Email into place, sitting down at my desk to write becomes easier.

Clear away your obstacles

As humans, we’re often our own worst enemies. It’s so easy to let excuses, inconveniences, and obstacles get in the way of working towards our goals – and so hard to let them go.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself as a creative person is to identify what obstacles are going to be get in the way of your goals, and nip them in the bud.

If I want to write fiction first thing in the morning, for example, that means I need to finish that pressing client project the night before, and install Freedom on my computer so I can block the internet. If I want to cut down on my sugar intake, I should probably (maybe) give away that box of chocolates grandma gave me for Christmas. If I want to stop getting distracted by Twitter, I should take it off my phone.

Track your progress

How do you know you’re improving if you’re not charting your progress? If you’re technologically minded, try using a goal-setting site like Lifetick or an app like GoalsOnTrack to keep track of goal progress. (For a nice rundown of different goal-setting apps, check out this post from Michael Hyatt.)

Or you can go old-school like me, and just hang a calendar above your desk with a color-coded system of check marks. (Feel free to give yourself a gold star when you’ve done extra well – I totally do whenever I hit 1000 words!)

Check in, and tweak as you go

The important thing is to not view your goals as static, but rather to allow them to adapt and change.

If writing three times a week before breakfast just isn’t working, try writing at a different time of day. Or try dictating while you walk, or some other form of writing that gets the words out. Scheduling yourself regular check-ins gives you the ability to adapt your resolutions as you go, rather than simply deciding they’re failures if they don’t work out on the first go around.

I saw this great post today on ZenHabits.net about conducting a monthly review. In it, Leo Babauta talks about taking a few minutes at the end of every month to check in with yourself and see where you’re succeeding, and where you could be doing little better.


 

How are your creative New Years resolutions going? What are you finding to be the biggest obstacles to making time for your creative projects? Let me know in the comments!

(This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote for GovPilot.)

Three Brains Are Better than One: How Accountability Groups Keep Me On Track

On Thursday, I fired up my computer at 8 AM to get on Skype.

I’m normally working that early already – or at least putting the kettle on and checking email – but I try to avoid conversating with the outside world until later in the day.

Thursday, I didn’t have a choice. It was already 11am Stephanie’s time and 6 PM Ayelet’s time in Israel. Plus, we had a special occasion to celebrate: our two-year “Grupoversary”.

Although we’ve never met in person, Stephanie and Ayelet have become an important part of my life over the last two years – they’re my freelance writing accountability partners. Every week, I check in about goals that I have for my freelancing business, my fiction writing business, and my health. (Crucial, since it’s easy to get wrapped up in work and forget to take care of our bodies!)

Over the last year we’ve not only challenged ourselves to try new marketing tactics and take on bigger clients, but also to start running and try Zumba. We’ve shared prospecting tips and healthy easy recipes. We supported each other goals to work on our websites, and to get better sleep. We’ve cheered on each other’s weekly to-do lists, and also gently suggested that maybe we should knock a few items off and go for a nice walk instead.

This group isn’t the only one that I check in with weekly.

I’m also a member of the Trifecta, a group started over three years ago with two old friends. It started one weekend when two of us who lived in Seattle rode our bikes up to Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island, to visit our third friend. We sight-saw and caught up with each other, but we also spent the whole weekend talking about our plans for self-employment.

I was ready to stop working full-time as a copywriter and start freelancing. Nalisha was ready to quit a job she hated and make a living from her art. Andrea was already making money as a knitting pattern designer, but she wanted to grow her business into a real living.

We made a pact to check in with goals once a week, and we’ve done it ever since – for three years. In fact, next week will be our annual Trifecta retreat, where we’ll get together for another long weekend of wine, bikes, and serious talks about our business goals for the next year.

These two “groupoverseries” in the same month have gotten me thinking about just how important accountability groups have been to me over the last few years.

Between these two groups, I’ve seen my business grow. I can’t tell you how important it is to have a group of trusted people to bounce ideas off of. To ask: am I crazy for thinking this? would you buy this product? what would you charge for this kind of writing? how should I approach this client? is this story any good?

If you’re like most of us, you probably made some New Year’s resolutions. And if you’re like most of us, if you want to increase your chances of completing your New Year’s resolutions – whether personally or for business – you need accountability.

There have been so many times over the last three years when I followed through on a goal purely because I had told one or another of my accountability groups that I would. It was enough motivation just knowing that I would have to say: no, I never reached out to that client that I wanted to get; no, I didn’t prioritize my health this week no; I was too afraid to send that email to a clients to raise my rates.

How do you find your own accountability group?

You may know people already in real life who would make good accountability partners.

Or, you may want to try a specialized forum to meet new people. (My freelance accountability group met in the Freelance Writer’s Den when Ayelet posted that she was looking to start an accountability group to focus on health.)

Or, maybe you can think of several people in your industry who seem to be on the same level as you, and who you’ve liked meeting in the past. Try sending out an email asking if they’d be interested. You’d be surprised at how many people are looking for something like this – and all it takes is an email or a phone call. The worst that could happen is they say no, and you continue being colleagues.

Or, you may just want to start posting about your goals on your blog and create accountability for yourself that way. That’s one thing I really admire about writer Emily June Street – she’s always courageously sharing her goals and how she did every month.

However you find accountability, I encourage you to make that a goal this month.

Do you already have an accountability group? How has it helped you with your goals?