We stayed on holiday by mistake

Sometime in 2012, my wife and I and our two boys (aged 5 and 8) moved from Bath — our home of more than a decade — to a tiny shack in the woods in North Devon.

We’d been happy in Bath: we’d started two new lives with the births of our kids, founded a business and a digital festival, met many lifelong friends, and we lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Our move was an itch, and we were lucky enough to be in the position to scratch it. It started with my wife looking at houses in Orkney and Shetland and that usual fantasy of living a different kind of life, just for a little while: a remote, more self-sufficient, more simple way of being. Our itch morphed from fantasy to reality with the realisation that we could do up our holiday home (the shack) and spend a year living in the country. A friend separating from his wife and needing a new home quickly gave us an easy option to rent out our house, and the planets aligned still further when we got the kids into a fantastic school just down the road in Devon.

Fast forward 5 years and we’re still here — no longer in the same house (we still own it and eventually managed to do it up, too — the proof is on airbnb — and yes, you should book up and stay, it’s the loveliest place you can possibly imagine…) but still in the area, 10 miles away over the border in Cornwall.

We never meant to stay. It was going to be a year-long project, and then back home to Bath. As it is, we found some things that we didn’t even know we were looking for — among them balance, simplicity, freedom and perspective.

Our move to the middle of nowhere happened at a time that is typically called a mid life crisis: I was hitting 40, when previous assumptions about longevity and health are no longer as easy to rely on. Suddenly you’re half way through a typical average life span, and the big questions — why am I here, what is it all for, what is the shape of the life I want to lead, how can I make a difference to the people I care about — loom large. The smaller questions take on new shapes, too: should I be saving, am I eating ok, is my work eating my life and, fuck, how many times have I looked at my mobile today…

When you don’t have a belief system mapped out — and I’m one of those people who was never religious (more C of E by default just because it was there and I quite liked a hymn) but has become more and more convinced about a secular life as I’ve got older — questions like this feel as if they need a different kind of framing, one which is a bit more deliberate and thoughtful. The move and our now-life has led me to think hard about the way that people can choose to live — particularly about how a freelance working life can be moulded to fit a deeper and more satisfying balance in a wider spectrum of reflection, reading, friendships and family.
I’ve written a lot before: a book, numerous articles, blog posts for myself and others, courses, essays, short stories, workshops, and (my ten-year project, still going..) a novel — but now feels like a good time to focus some thoughts on this particular set of questions.

So: that’s my intention with Coast. If you work for yourself, maybe if you’re middle-aged, if you’re someone who is trying (not always successfully) to find balance and flow while juggling (not literally) kids and life, if you’re someone who has the black dog at their heels sometimes…maybe what I write might resonate with you.

Peace out x

Never enough time?

Lots of people have heard of Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Anyone who has worked for any length of time knows this to be true. Looking at it from another angle, you’re never quite finished – yes, you finish projects, empty inboxes, get through to-do lists but there’s always, always something else.

When you work for someone else, this is ok – you reach your lunch break or 5.30 or whenever you’re due to stop and as long as you know you’ve done what you can and your boss isn’t going to fire you / shout at you / give the job to someone else, you find it easy(ish) to walk away.

The challenge is however made very different when you work for yourself. Then, those outside constraints – the “it-really-is-time-to-stop” alarm clock – don’t exist.

I reckon there are three main reasons why this is:

1. Your edges – your work-life balance – aren’t so clearly cut. This might be because physically they’re blurred – i.e. you work from home and your desk is also your dinner table; or it might be more about the intangible – you can (and do) access your email at any time of the night and day. Your business becomes your life and your life becomes your business.

2. It’s YOUR thing – your business, your company, your idea, your reputation – saying “fuck it, I need to stop” becomes infinitely much harder when you’re embedded in something you believe and have invested in.

3. There genuinely isn’t an end to the work that needs to be done when you’re working for yourself. Yes, you might have got to inbox-0, got all the client work out of the way and done your invoicing, but there’s always the improvements, the business development, the file shuffling, receipt printing, content writing….

I’ve worked for myself running a digital agency with my wife now for coming up to two years. I love it, and we both work extremely hard at it, but I’ve only recently come to see that a positive acceptance of Parkinson’s Law (rather than a resistance to it) is a hugely important thing for the self-employed. I know far too many people (you know who you are) who work for themselves and stress the hell out of their entire lives 24/7. They might be doing incredible stuff, but many of them spend their weekends and evenings working and their lives stressing.

By positively accepting that I’ll never, ever get everything done – and it’s ok for this to be the case – I have found it hugely much easier to find a sane, guilt-free, family-friendly work/life balance. As an example, we’re now working to a 9am-3pm daily schedule (which fits in with school hours) and try to use Thursdays and Fridays as “look ahead” days to develop new ideas and processes. The short day thing is highly effective – we get as much done in those intensive 6 hours than we would in a “normal” day of 8 hours AND I get the pleasure of hanging out with my kids after school too. The Thursday/Friday thing is challenging at times as client work almost always tries to invade time set aside for future-thinking, but we’re getting better at being disciplined with this. Evenings and weekends are – with very, very occasional exceptions – sacred, set aside for non-work stuff.

It seems to me that one of the huge luxuries of working for yourself – and one that surprisingly few self-employed people I know take advantage of – is the flexibility to choose when NOT to work.

Going freelance

I’m delighted and terrified (in pretty much equal measures) to announce that at the end of June 2011 I’ll be leaving my current employer Eduserv, and heading out into the wilderness of the freelancer.

As with any move, I’ll be very sad to leave the fine people I’ve been working so closely with but I’m also totally over-excited about starting something up. I fooled around with my own company when I left university in 1995 but it all went horribly wrong and it’s always felt like an itch I wanted to scratch properly.

This time, I won’t be alone in my endeavours. My excellent and massively talented wife – ex Science Museum, ex-Natural History Museum, ex-Colston Hall, mum – will be joining me as co-director of our new company thirty8 *. We’ll be focusing on web consulting, web and mobile strategy, training, content development and also some WordPress-based site builds. Naturally with our backgrounds we’ll be looking for museumy work, but we aren’t going to be limited by sector in any way.

So that’s it. Obviously if you’re looking for people to work with or just want to say hello, please do get in touch by dropping a comment on this post or via Twitter.

See you in July 🙂

{ * And why “thirty8”? Well, that’d be telling.. }