How to Write When You Don’t Have the Energy

Unfortunately, this is a personal subject for me. For the past three years, I’ve dealt with a thyroid-related issue that causes me frequent fatigue (less so now that I have the right meds). On top of that, I’ve had many days where my brain was foiled by allergies (a bigger deal in Austin than the word “allergies” communicates to most people). But I run a business based around writing and I’ve had to keep it up on the bad days as well as the good.

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Over time, I’ve become used to keeping my work going when my brain and body just want to curl up in bed and avoid anything that requires mental energy. And writing takes a lot of mental energy. Yet, somehow I still meet my deadlines.

Some days I’m amazed that’s the case, but apparently I’ve figured something out that works. Suspecting that there are others that struggle with similar issues or different ones that affect your productivity in similar ways, I’m sharing what’s worked for me in the hopes that it might work for you.

It’s unlikely that every item on this list will be useful for every person reading it. But if you find that even just one thing here makes a difference, then that’s something.

  1. Re-shape your to-do list based on priority.

Most of us start off each day aiming to do more than we absolutely have to get done. A lot of the time, that ambition serves us well and helps us stay productive. But some days it can feel like a burden pressing down on us making it harder to get anything on the list done.

When you’re having an off day an overwhelming to-do list isn’t doing you any favors. Carefully review the list and figure out which items on it can wait. You need the sparse energy you have for the writing that has to get done today. Move that to the top of the list, do it first, and then do whatever else you can manage after.

  1. Analyze where your energy goes.

This one’s personal, and extremely useful over the long term. Every person’s going to have different types of work and activities that require a lot of energy from them, while others require less. When you deal with any kind of issue that causes you lower energy levels for certain days or periods of time, knowing how to re-shape your calendar based on the amount of energy you’ll have available is a useful skill.

This is valuable even if you don’t struggle with depression or illness – tracking how your energy levels relate to the work (and play even) that you tackle each day can help you plan your weeks more efficiently. You can minimize tasks that require a disproportionate amount of energy for the value they bring to your work.

For instance, I’m extremely introverted. Adding a networking event into my day is going to use up a lot of the energy I have for work that day, even on a good day. So I know to be strategic in when I plan to attend social events, and know when to forego those plans when the energy just isn’t there. Figure out how the typical tasks you have to deal with in a week compare in this regard so you know which ones to cut down on to conserve the energy you have.

  1. Leave wiggle room in your schedule.

If you’re freelance like me, that will mean leaving money on the table. Sorry.

But when you can’t predict what your days will be like, you have to plan your life in a way that anticipates at least some bad days.

This isn’t a tip that will help much if you woke up this morning feeling fatigued or depressed for the first time, but if it becomes something that happens at all regularly, then you have to start planning on it. Worst-case scenario, if you have nothing but good days for a while, that extra wiggle room gives you time to tackle all those tasks that tend to get put off to later when you’re busy.

  1. Use a social media blocker.

Seriously, it helps. When your brain wants to be focusing on anything but the thing you know you most need to be doing, it can fall into the well of endless social media messages. That’s probably not the only distraction in your life you have to grapple with, but it’s one you can do something about.

I use Focus. It costs a small fee, but it’s probably improved my productivity enough to cover its cost several times over. When you genuinely want to be focusing and your brain won’t cooperate for whatever reason, getting a message that reminds you of your good intentions the moment you go to pull up Facebook can be a helpful reminder to get back on track.

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  1. Give work out breaks a try.

I get it. I understand if you’re looking at the computer screen right now feeling so tired or overwhelmed or beat down by life that this is likely the last piece of advice you’ll want to hear.

It’s counterintuitive when it feels like you have so much to do and not enough energy to do it to take time out of your day for exercise. But I’ve found that it sometimes kick-starts my brain and gives me a couple of hours of productivity afterward. It might not do the same for you, but it’s worth a try.

  1. Watch what you eat.

Pay attention to insensitivities or ingredients that regularly make your drowsy or distracted. I know having a carb-heavy lunch brings my productivity down in the afternoon, for example. How people react to food varies, so saving carbs for dinnertime might not make a lick of difference to you. But do some experimenting with cutting certain ingredients out for a period of time to see if you see any difference. Or start making notes of how you feel throughout the day and what you ate so you can see if there’s a relationship.

Changing your diet won’t make something like a thyroid problem or depression disappear entirely, but cutting out something that makes you feel a little bit worse will help you feel a little bit better. When you’re starting from a place of feeling crummy, that little bit of difference can help.

  1. Try supplements or herbal teas.

Look, for all I know it may be the placebo affect, but I’ve found this tea helps when I’m really struggling to focus. And making tea out of fresh ginger (I add in some mint and lemon or lime) seems to help with headaches or allergy-induced brain fog. Ginseng or gingko supplements work for some people. B-12 or vitamin D supplements may work for others.

Your doctor can run some tests to see if you’re low on any supplements that are good for energy and brain health. And you can try out some different options to see if something works for you.

  1. Give yourself a break.

The inspirational stuff you see on social media or in productivity articles for people that don’t have illnesses/depression/whatever you’re dealing with right now may be good for other people, but they can make those of us struggling to finish the bare minimum feel rotten. Know that it’s ok not to hold yourself to someone else’s standard when you’re having a bad day (or week, or month).

Feeling stressed out and hopeless won’t help you get the things you need to done. Do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up what you accomplished today is less than you’d hoped.

 

I’m not a doctor or medical expert, so if you’re dealing with something that you think may benefit from talking to someone who is, don’t let this post be a substitute. Getting the right meds made a huge difference in my ability to get work done without having to lean on these tips and tricks quite so often. But having a few more tricks in your bag besides to help out when things are hard doesn’t hurt. I hope these can help you get through the writing that has to get done today and that your tomorrow is better.

 

 

 

 

5 Key Takeaways for Freelancers from Content Marketing World 2013

freelance content marketingThe whole concept of content marketing is  changing how businesses value and approach many of the skills we freelancers most excel at.  While the Content Marketing World conference is definitely not put together with freelancers top of mind, it provides a good glimpse into what our clients and potential clients are thinking about, the directions they’re moving in and the best ways we can provide the value they’re seeking.

As a freelance writer, the tips I’ve shared below definitely lean towards lessons useful for freelance writers specifically, but many of these can be easily applied to freelancers working in any capacity related to content marketing. The growing importance of images and videos was a hot topic, and the need for well-designed websites has always been a crucial issue in content marketing.

Without further ado, here are 5 key takeaways for freelancers from this year’s Content Marketing World:

1) Marketers consider creating enough good content a big problem.

In advance of the conference, the Content Marketing Institute performed a survey to get a clear idea of what marketers are doing, and what tactics are working for them. 55% of those surveyed ranked producing enough content as one of the largest challenges they face.

Couple that number with the 58% planning to increase their content marketing budget over the next year and we’ve got some ripe conditions for quality freelancers to help fill in the gaps businesses are experiencing.

An important distinction here is that word “good” – marketers are bringing increasingly high standards to what constitutes content worth publishing. As the web becomes ever more saturated with content, we have to be able to bring our A-game to the clients we work with to help them develop the kind of content that helps a business stand apart from the crowd.

2) Content strategy is key for effectiveness.

This was another takeaway from the survey. The businesses that jump into content marketing without a plan get less out of it than those that develop a strategy.

While freelancers are often just one part of the larger content strategy for businesses, this is an important piece of information for us to impress upon any clients that aren’t thinking strategically. If we help them develop awesome content, but it’s not used effectively, we’re not really helping. Not to mention, we risk becoming a line item easy to cut out of their budget if our work doesn’t help them make money.

If we want to add value (as we should), we must urge clients to approach their content marketing with a bigger picture in mind.

3) Help out non-customers, even if you don’t see a direct benefit.

This point was emphasized again and again in different talks and sessions at the conference. Jay Baer, whose talk was one of the most popular there, urged the audience to “make marketing so useful, people would pay for it.”

Obviously, if you’re doing freelance work for pay, you’re already thinking that way 🙂

One of his other really meaningful points was to always think about how to help people in your audience, even if they’re not your customer. Good content marketing means thinking about offering value first, and making sales later.

Hilton created a Twitter account devoted to proactively giving travelers advice on different cities they visit – even people staying at other hotels. Lowe’s shares useful tips via Vine for people interested in home repair and gardening – including one that shows people how to make their own watering can (a tool Lowe’s sells).

Is it crazy to help your competitors’ customers, or tell people how to make the products you sell? Nope. It’s just good marketing.

4) Many businesses are looking for content that’s as good as journalism.

Bill Haggin and Nancy Pardo talked about their successful strategy running a blog for PTC. They made the recommendation to a crowded room of marketers to hire journalists for their blogs. This means:

a) Businesses are placing a value on blogging at a higher level than ever, and

b) They’re willing to pay good writers for journalism-level work.

This doesn’t just apply to writing, David Germano talk about treating your marketing like a media company. Andrew Davis compared content marketing to his previous profession creating kids shows. You have to think like the editors and media professionals whose job it is to entertain and educate an audience.

Having content doesn’t make businesses more competitive, having content that’s more helpful and informative does. We need to be thinking at that level in the work we provide clients.

5) Have personality!

Andrew Davis gave an example of a woman who built a massive following and successful makeup brand out of making short videos that had personality. Lauren Luke’s brief makeup tutorials on YouTube became massively popular. She didn’t spend any money on the videos, just brought a little time and personality to them.

You want people to care about and relate to your brand, which is harder for them to do if it feels like an entity without actual people behind it. Don’t be afraid of humor. Don’t be afraid of using a tone that’s more personal than professional.

If clients tend towards dry industry speak and buzzwords, try to steer them back around to the kind of language their customers actually speak. And don’t ever think any subject’s too dry or dull for some humor, Tim Washer shared some examples of companies that made dull subjects humorous. Who knew router hardware could be so fun?

 

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that I came across many people who exclaimed “we really need more good writers!” or some variation of that phrase. While I hear many freelance writers concerned about finding good clients, those good clients are out there trying to figure out how to find us too.

On Writing and Getting Paid

writing and getting paidThere’s been a lot of conversation online recently about the typical practices surrounding how for-profit publications pay writers, or whether they do at all. Prompted by the correspondence Nate Thayer published between him and an Atlantic editor, after he was asked to let them publish his work for free, many writers and editors have spoken up to weigh in on the subject, including Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, and a large group of writers and editors at the Awl.

As a freelance writer, I’ve followed the conversation with fascination. Sometimes to the slight detriment of my own productivity (did you see the length of that Awl discussion?). It’s not a new discussion, but as with many heated topics, all that was required was the catalyst of one angry writer making a stink, and many others followed to weigh in with their opinion.

So, because I’m sure the internet is clamoring for one more voice on the subject, here’s mine.

Whether or not writers should be paid for their work depends on the intent of the work.

Work

Obviously I need to get paid for my time and work, or I can’t make a living and would need to go back to working for someone else. I very much prefer freelance work to the alternative, so this is an important consideration. If I’m writing for a business or a for-profit publication, there shouldn’t be a question of payment. The content provided is valuable and serves a profitable purpose.

Almost any work I do that will help to promote another company or publication, I expect to get paid for.

Marketing

Here’s where the almost comes in: in order to be successful as a freelance writer, marketing myself plays an important role in the equation. Many freelance writers produce content for self-promotion for free, whether that content is published on a personal blog, their own website, or as a guest post or article in an industry publication that will bring it to a larger audience.

This is the tricky line of exposure. How do you measure whether the publication of your work is doing more to promote the publication in question (in which case you should be paid) and when it does more to promote your own brand (in which case it serves as marketing and might be worth doing for free, or a lower rate than usual).

Love

There’s an amazing series on the Hairpin called Scandals of Classic Hollywood. As I understand it, these stories, which are often lengthy and always include a number of photographs that surely take some time to gather, are written for free. They are also wildly popular on the site.

Why would someone put that much time into something without the promise of a profit? It’s clear that the writer, Anne Helen Peterson, loves the subject matter she writers about. It’s worth noting, she also recently published a book on the subject that many of her Hairpin readers rushed to buy, but my hunch is that she didn’t start the series a couple of years ago as a long-term marketing project for a book that hadn’t been written yet (although if she did, that’s brilliant marketing).

If a writer chooses to do some writing to help a non-profit she cares about with fundraising, or to raise awareness of an issue that’s of special importance to her, or for the fun of analyzing a good tv show – then there’s a drive to do the work that has little to do with profit.

 

So, that’s it. If you ask a professional writer to write for free, unless doing so achieves them a specific marketing goal, or it’s a piece about something they love and would likely write about anyways, don’t be surprised if you get an offended response like Thayer’s.

Unless you’re quick to offer whatever you do for a living for free to any asker, you should be sympathetic to their position.

Content Marketing in 2013

That content marketing is a growing force is no surprise to anyone who follows trends in marketing. Blog posts and articles citing the benefits quality content has on branding, SEO and customer loyalty abound.

Nonetheless, it’s nice to be able to match some numbers to all the talk. Business Bolts performed a survey of 265 individuals, a mix of small business owners and marketing professionals, in order to gain a sense of how businesses are approaching content marketing in 2013.

You can find the full report on their findings here.

Most of the results aren’t especially surprising, but serve to back up arguments copywriters, marketers and SEO professionals have been making for some time:
content marketing trends

  • Content marketing is good for SEO

77% of respondents said content marketing helped increase web traffic, and 71% said it helped them achieve higher rankings

  • Content marketing is good for ROI

Although there are challenges in many cases to tracking the relationship between content marketing and sales, 59% said they believed that content marketing helped them up their sales numbers.

  • Content marketing strengthens brand awareness

70% reported this benefit, another that’s hard to track, but crucial for small business success.

The good news for freelance writers and content developers: many respondents expressed a desire to find good content producers.

The bad news: few have made content production a high budget item. Most (61%) reported still doing the majority of their content development in house, but of those that worked with freelancers the amount they’re paying is piddling. 14% spend less than $15 for 1,000 words, and 17% spend between $16 and $25.

It’s clear that businesses have a growing awareness of the benefit good content provides. Hopefully, their willingness to value those helping them reap that benefit will increase in time as well.