A rundown of my benchmark accomplishments

It’s been 2 and a half months since I quit my job. The guilt has already set in. I feel blocked and lazy, like I’m not doing enough. But even so, here’s a reminder of a few things I’ve done:

  • Written, recorded and edited 30 lessons
  • Re-designed my blog and drafted 4 long articles
  • Increased the number of Instagram posts
  • Did a course on Sketch UX
  • Designed wireframes for my app

I read this blog entry by Cal Newport on how to acquire useful career skills. The blog talks about how benchmark accomplishments are better than drilling down on a specific skill. This is because one is vague and the other is specific and goal-oriented.

So I thought it would be useful to write down my benchmark accomplishment goals:

  • Publish 500 Instagram posts (I’m currently on 154)
  • Publish 200 blog entries (I’m currently on 4)
  • Design and launch app
  • Do a second round of user research once the app is launched
  • Contact 20 companies about running wellbeing workshops (this will be the most difficult for me personally)

As a secondary goal, I want to retrain as a UX Researcher. While I am a Digital Marketer, I want to design and develop products. I want to spend a couple of years focusing on my start-up and developing my skills. Therefore benchmark accomplishments for this would include:

  • Set up a portfolio website (including my own app and website)
  • Complete a UX bootcamp (but need to find ways of funding this)

At what point the above will happen depends on what happens in the next two years. I also want to begin shooting a personal documentary. There is no pressure for this as I imagine it will be a very long process, but I think it would be useful to start getting some footage. So for this project, my aim will be:

  • Film one thing a month

As I work towards these benchmark accomplishments, I hope to give you an update every month. But I am not allowed to give up until I have reached these benchmark accomplishments. Nor am I allowed to get obsessed with stats until I have at least accomplished what is on my list.

My flaws, and what to do about them

The advantage of getting older is that you’re able to observe your flaws over a long period of time. Since I was 16, I have many of the same flaws at 33. Some flaws you grow out of. You eventually drop them or improve or you no longer beat yourself up over them and reach a point of self-acceptance. For others, it’s different story. You’re stuck in a loop. So here are my flaws, and here’s what I’m going to do about them.

I start from scratch and delete the old

Ever since I’ve been old enough to wield an avatar and open up a new account, I’ve always opted for deleting instead of sticking to blogs and social media accounts. As some point, I stultify: I begin to hate what I’ve written in the past, the views I’ve held and the lack of success for a blog that I’ve begun. I’m too scared to hold true to my opinions and because something hasn’t paid off after a year or two or hasn’t led to opportunities, I want to begin again.

The cure: resist the urge to delete or start anything again. Change, update, experiment and modify what I have, but resist the urge to begin again. Yes, this means keeping the awful Twitter account, but making sure I don’t check Twitter. Instead of becoming disillusioned after a year, stick with something for at least 5 years before starting again. Always take a long view. This blog is for the excess in me — but it’s not the ‘real’ me.

I care too much about what other people think

This is very common. But in highly metrified spaces, like social media or even blogging, this flaw is intensified. In an offline space, I will withdraw or withhold an opinion, but the moment will pass and the pain doesn’t stick. Online, there is evidence that I’ve allegedly failed. And even though I’m aware, more than the average person, about the artificial design tactics used to promote some content over others, I still blame myself.

I’m also always trying to please everyone: my intellectual uni mates who would cringe at everything I post on Insta, strangers on the internet, potential employers. I get hung up on what a specific person thinks and then demonise them, even though I rarely interact with them. I imagine them rolling their eyes. But then I also resent them too. It’s the paranoia that damages friendships.

The cure: this is a hard one. I’m always going to care about what other people think. I’m always going to want to please some people more than others, because I regard them as more important than me.

But I also know that this comes from holding an idea of who I should be. I should behave in this way because so-and-so believes I should act in this way. I need to let go of these pressures and expectations to be a fixed identity, a fixed person. Unless I am doing something dishonest, which I never am, I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

I’m also mind-reading all the time, when I have no proof that someone is thinking this. They may be doing it: but I exaggerate the importance it holds in their lives. People have all sorts of things going on with them. They’re trying to write books, get published, hold down a full-time job, have kids. I’m just a footnote on their Twitter or Insta feed. Unless I’m attacking something that they directly do, they won’t think about me too much. People are far more preoccupied with themselves than other people. I don’t agree with everything all my friends do. But I rarely attack or hate them for it. I just scroll past it, like they’re just an irrelevant piece of content. I don’t even dislike them for it. The only person I really hold back and hurt is myself.

It’s hard to know what the ‘cure’ is. But I think this comes down to knowing my principles, reminding myself why I care so much about why I’m doing something, having fun, learning and experimenting with this, and also just putting myself in perspective. No one really gives a shit. They should still be more pissed off at systemic injustice over their well-intentioned friend with an Insta account on wellness.

But what I can do is:

  1. Focus on the people who support me (whether they are online or offline)
  2. Let go of this need to be this hyper-critical, super academic intellectual, it’s okay to let go of old identities and have new priorities
  3. Allow myself to fail and explore, and be open to genuine and legitimate criticism, instead of imagined criticism
  4. Remind myself of my principles and why I’m doing something. I’m not doing this to get applause or cred from a notoriously neurotic subsection of society, but to actually make a difference and change lives

I don’t persevere with things

This is linked to the first point. I want things to happen quickly. I create an idea, I put it out there. If it doesn’t get that much traction, I then start from scratch again. This isn’t like blogs or social media, but about mini-products and creative outputs. I want things to happen quickly. I double my work by rewriting and re-recording things from scratch. I also love novelty. When I begin something new, I develop skills quickly. But eventually it slows down. Really slows down. I don’t see the benefit of it after a few days, a few weeks, then want to give up.

The cure: build on what I’ve already done instead of starting from afresh. This comes down to disliking what I have already written, filmed and recorded, instead of building what I have. So regularly re-reading and reviewing what I’ve created is going to be important, no matter how much I want to cringe. Also just stick to things, even when I have the impulse to delete or remove it.

The one thing I want to work on though is building on what I’ve already learned and experienced, instead of dropping it for something new. It’s hard, having to expose yourself and be vulnerable in front of people. But no one’s looking that hard and I can’t please everyone.

Today I quit my job

Today I quit my job.

Or, more accurately, I chose not to renew my contract. I’ve been freelancing on and off there for the past four and a half years. I usually wait until they find a replacement or the work fizzles out before I leave.

But today I left on my own terms.

It’s a comfortable role. I work 3 days a week. I get paid the same as when I worked there full-time. There are loads of people at the company who would kill to work the days I do.

Why did I do this?

Because I want to work on my start-up.

This seems like a bizarre thing to do. It’s an app. I don’t have funding. I have no way to monetise the product for the next 6 months. And, after releasing it, there’s no guarantee anyone will use it, let alone pay for it.

So why would I give up my cushy job to do this?

I know that I have a safety net with my partner and my family. Even though a global recession looks like it’s looming, I hopefully have enough savings to see me through a year if I scrimped really hard.

And the best things I’ve done in my life have come when I took risks. The last time I had a few months off, I made an award-winning documentary, worked for an amazing charity and, well, came up with my start-up idea. I would have had none of those experiences if I stayed put in a 9-5.

Creativity always happens when you freefall.

But it also happens with people. This is one of the first times I don’t have have an idea of something to do such as a course. This feels like a risk.

And yet, I know these are just fears.

The last time I was unemployed and job-hunting, I found a job in two weeks. I know my current place would take me back, and they usually have projects I can help with in the future. I’ve always wanted the excuse to job-hunt. I have a much better idea of where I would want to be if I did decide to get a job full-time.

The fact is: I don’t have a good excuse.

But I’m still frightened. I’m frightened of how lucky I am to even be in this position where this is something I can do. I feel guilty about it. Shouldn’t I save up money? Shouldn’t I focus on adding up the pennies and eventually reaching the faraway vista of financial independence?

But I know I don’t earn enough for that to even be an option. The only way to earn more is to do something different.

But the dream isn’t to work for someone else: it’s to start my own business.

My partner says the way I can make myself most employable is to have my own start-up. I have no idea whether that applies to people in my circumstances. I don’t know how to code (he’s a coder). I don’t have heaps of confidence. I’m worried I’ll watch Netflix all day, drink beer at midday and do no exercise.

But I also feel relief. If they had come to me and said, ‘by the way, your contract has been renewed for another 3 months,’ how would I be feeling now?

When I close my eyes and let myself sink into my gut, I know it wouldn’t be right. I feel a lightness in me when I think about how my life will be in 3 weeks. I feel optimistic and excited.

For the past 2 months, I’ve actually been feeling grumpy and depressed when I go to work. This hasn’t got anything to do with the people or the role. It’s to do with the commute. I have no stamina for the 3 hours of my life wasted on a packed tube.

Now I feel I have a reason to go through with the commute each day.

Now I have made the decision, I’ve got the excitement of planning out the next four months. So stay tuned…

Awkward conversations

It doesn’t matter how well or how boring or how uncontroversial a conversation is with a new person who would be useful for my start-up, I feel awkward afterwards. I’m embarrassed by how inexperienced I must come across to them. They’ve been in this industry for years. They’ve got funding. They’ve started something from scratch and made it last, and I’m this weird blathering hatchling who doesn’t know how to walk yet.

I had one of those conversations today. We got on fairly well, even though I’m sure we disagree on key things. I feel so easily talked out of my viewpoints, so vulnerable to being a fake. This is classic ‘imposter syndrome’. It doesn’t help to say ‘everyone has imposter syndrome’. I still feel as if my day has been sidelined, that my chest feels as if it’s been opened and I’m recovering from a wound.

When will this feeling go away? I watched two episodes of GLOW, refreshed the Guardian a lot (why is the Guardian my go-to spot) and shoved leftover food in my mouth while lying on the sofa. It was very different from the morning that began with meditation and four Pomodoro sessions. I would have grabbed a beer, but there was none in the fridge. This is far from the sparkly wellbeing polish that we demand.

But the lack of closure, the feeling that I could have said something different, better, that I could have come across as less naive and inexperienced stays with me. People always ask: “How can I help you?” and “Who can I connect with you?” And I just sit dumbly. I go, “I don’t know. I’m just starting out.” I’m nice but inarticulate. I lack direction and focus. I come across as unprofessional. Those are my fears.

People want to help but I’m not sure how they can help me. I want to focus on my own project. But, like anyone, I struggle with procrastination and anxiety. I know what my Wellbeing Hat would say. Leave the house, go for a walk, do some exercise, meditate. Then return, refreshed, and just go for it. But something is gluing me to the screen. Or I say, ‘No, I’ll just do this one bit of admin and I don’t have to worry about it.’ But just writing this is part of my anxiety. I’m not looking for a cure right now. I’m looking for a place too vent.

Sorting out my life: the key areas

So much is happening in my life, I need to write it all down. So here are the key areas I’m focusing on.

Wedding 

“Organising a wedding is like a second job,” my manager told me. I’ve known friends who disappeared for six months because they were too busy picking out linen, hand-crafting invites, setting up bespoke websites for relatives and guests. 

But I’ve barely spent any time on it. 

And it’s happening in 15 days. 

Even now, in spite of all this, I’m still pulled towards other projects (writing a secret blog?), getting a start-up off the ground, hanging out with friends and family.  It’s harder when your partner is equally busy and even less motivated to do the admin. 

But the vows and speeches have to be written, the restaurants booked, the invites and details sent. We’ve organised the venue, the flowers, the food, the music but neglected guests, loved ones and ourselves. 

The little touches that would make the day ours are being neglected. We don’t have an order of service or vows.

We are spending a lot of money on a day that both of us don’t want to think about. There is a lot of spending, sending emails, rushed communication with suppliers — but very little thinking and feeling. Thinking and feeling requires time, not getting through a to do list as efficiently as possible.

Right now, we just keeping our heads above water. I was very reluctant to have a Big Day to begin with. But it should be beautiful. 

Start up

On top of organising a wedding and working part-time, I’m also working on my own start-up. It’s on something I care about. A lot. But it’s also challenging me in ways that I’m struggling with: promoting myself, networking, public-speaking, using social media for self-promotion, and navigating the tricky balance between competition and collaboration. Not to mention just getting on with the work.

But having a start-up creates a lot of guilt in your “spare” time. I never feel as if working fast enough. I know that it’s only me working on this part-time: that I’m limited. Creating and designing an app from scratch, while also running workshops and maintaining a public profile through talks and social media are a lot. It’s only been a year and a bit since ‘launching’ – I know it’s going to be a long slog, but there’s always the anxiety and the pressure to feel I should be further along by now.

I also want to avoid burnout. My start-up is about wellbeing and resisting toxic productivity. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t look after myself. But I also need to accept that when I push myself, I grow. I have learnt more about myself professionally in the past year than my entire career. Anxiety, stress and constant self-doubt are part of the journey. 

Money

My sister has been obsessed with the financial independence movement for a while now, and took me along to the premiere of the FIRE documentary. That sent me on a mini rabbit hole or Mr. Money Moustache blogs and podcasts. The Compound Interest Calculator is now one of the websites I visit the most. It blows my mind that in 20 years, I could have over 100k saved by putting in £150 a month thanks to compound interest.

But I’m making good progress: I bought groceries worth £25 and have made all my lunches and dinners for myself and my partner this week so far. 

But I vow to save more. I’ve opened up a Vanguard account and putting in small monthly deposits. I’m also growing my pension, very slowly. Because I’m self-employed, I rely on my own (stingy) private contributions as a opposed to generous benefits from an employer.

Job Hunting

I freelance at a company with high churn. I’ve noticed that every time someone moves on, announces they’re leaving for another job, I feel a pang of… jealousy. 

I’ve never taken a deep plunge into job hunting. I tend to rely on former employers and contacts, and then settle for the first job offer. But this has left me in roles that feel stagnant. I’ve wanted to move away from digital marketing for a while now and go into product management and user research. 

I am under no pressure to find a new job soon. Even though my contract ends in September, I have a lot to do on my start up. I aim to get the app designed, developed, tested and ready to market by January – at the latest. 

But this is also an up-in-the-air time to do that. I need the time to work on my start-up. Even the risk of finding a full-time, satisfying job-of-my-dreams could put my start-up at risk.

Creativity and learning

Ahh, since starting this blog, I’ve been so excited about writing in it but struggled to find the time. Ironically it’s harder to find the time to write and meditate on the days I have off. People seem to fill this space. Something always comes up. As per my last blog, I use commuting time to write. It’s much harder doing creative work when surrounded by others.

But when it comes to creativity and learning, I’m at a cross roads. I feel like there are so many options open to me. Related to the FI point above, I need to earn more if I want to achieve FI. That potentially means retraining. I’m tempted to retrain as a UX researcher and get into product design. On the other hand, my start-up is the best way of doing this. Spending thousands on a course seems misguided and time-consuming, but it would give me the confidence to go for those roles.

Health and wellness

I seem to be unable to exercise and meditate at the same time. Right now, I’m in an exercise phase. I grew a pasta baby while in Italy. But thanks to intermittent fasting (8 hour window), HIIT exercise and making my own food, I’ve burnt most of it off in 10 days.

But I’ve stopped meditating again. While it’s easier to notice a flatter stomach, it’s much harder to trace the ebbs and flows of my mental state. Is my poor sleep down to hormones? Is my lack of resilience (especially on commutes) down to not meditating? I feel like I’m in a constant bad mood at work. But I’m not sure if this down to general exhaustion. I sometimes feel as I’ve forgotten how to do leisure.

As I blog, I hope to update you on the areas above.

Reclaiming my commute for creativity

Commuting is my least favourite time of day. I become aggressive, petty and stuck in dozens of micro-power struggles. It takes me almost 1.5 hours a day to commute one way. That is 3 hours in a crammed, sweaty, passive aggressive sauna with hundreds of other miserable commuters who are going through personal hell. It’s criminal that 1.5 hours of my most clear-headed, productive and creative hours are spent in this Purgatory. I can make it shorter, but the alternative leaves me feeling traumatised it’s so busy. So I vow to make the most of my commutes and reclaim them as a site of creativity.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash


Ways of looking


So much of creativity comes down to a way of looking. It’s about noticing and experiencing time in a non-transactional way. With the constant pressure to be busy and the never ending source of distractions offered by the internet, this way of looking (and listening) is under threat unless I make the effort to change it.


Introducing the daydream walk


It’s a 25-30 min walk to my preferred tube station. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable times of my day. So I’m going to embrace this time as my daydreaming time.

This will be the time I let my thoughts actively wander and decompress – so I can allow my mind to make connections it wouldn’t usually do. This is also a good time for podcasts, but I’ll make the effort to have sound-free walks at least once a week, so I can daydream without having my thoughts crammed with other viewpoints.

It’s also a nice cool down on the way back from work. Even though I often want to rush this, it’s also one of the few bridges I have been sitting in front of a screen to work… and then sitting in front of a screen to wind down.


Be curious about other people 


The biggest problem I have is dealing with the stress of hundreds commuters. I’m a small woman of colour who often feels shunted around and imposed upon by bigger, more entitled, commuters. While this is objectively true sometimes, it’s also not as common as I often perceive it to be. I often fixate on how I think others see me: weak, passive, easy to invade. So I become defensive by default. I forget the kindness of my fellow Londoners and the solidarity I should have with them.

So instead of being frustrated when I am hit by crowds, I’m going to use this as a way of looking and noticing. As I scan people, I want to notice at least one thing about them, even if it’s just noting their mood. People often try to fit in but even the most “normal” looking person can be eccentric when you really notice them. It’s the kind of curiosity I had about people when I was writing creatively as a teenager or a student. You’re always looking for details.

This gif is so me throughout my commute


Take the long way round


Let’s face it. A lot of the frustrations I have with my commute is that it takes so long. After work, commuting and chores, I have less leisure and creative time than commuting (and that’s without kids). So I’m going to reclaim this commuting time as writing and reading time. 
I can shave off 20 mins of my commute if I take the crowded route. But this means I’m crammed in a tight space, changing several times, unable to do anything except listen to music for relief. I like listening to music but it also has a numbing effect. I also become the monster I don’t want to be. 


Reading and writing hour


And so instead I’m going to reclaim commuting time as reading and writing time. The longer route mean I’m more likely to get a seat and I can spend at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing and reading time. That’s so precious.


While smartphones can often be pacifying escapist machines, soothing societal anxieties in even worse, more anxiety-inducing ways, I’m going to use my smartphone as a way of reclaiming my commute creatively. The WiFi on the tube is actually terrible. So being on a tube is actually a good time to write – like being on a plane.

Reclaiming time


If I manage to spend an hour of my time commuting to read or write, spend 50 minutes daydreaming, then I reduce that wasted, dead time to just one hour and ten minutes. That still sounds like a lot, but it means that I’ve clawed back an out for creativity and learning in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have time for. Admittedly there will be days when it’s so busy I won’t be able to do this, but I just have to let those go and accept them.


And with that, this is the first blog entry that I’ve written on the tube. It is more complete and focused than usual. Time to say goodbye to the miserable, 3 hour round commute. And time to embrace the joy of writing and creativity!