25 January 2010

So tired

If my surname was Prescott, I'd be known as Two Jobs.

I am shattered. My current typical day unfolds as follows:

- up at 6, feed cat, brew up, shower, dress, put face on, do any chores like emptying the kitchen bin/cat tray or putting the dustbin out, take meds, make toast, flick through overnight emails, skim headlines of at least one decent newspaper...

- 8, yell "oh fuck", grab coat/bus pass/phone/bag/, lock up and take a brisk walk to the bus stop.

- 8.15, get on bus, read Twitterfeed on my phone, dip into Facebook and use an app to skim more paper headlines.

- 8.40, arrive at work, boot up computer, head to canteen to get Very Large Coffee, return 15 minutes later to discover PC is still trying to load itself. Spend next 8 hours working my socks off.

- 17.00, leave work, get bus home.

- 17.45, home, where I feed the cat then start Job no. ", ie, my freelance business.

I'm currently spending at least 3 hours every week night just maintaining the business. I know I receive a lot of emails every day and I've made estimates of the total in the past. Being out all day and coming home to frighteningly full inboxes brings home just how much mail I get. I'm probably averaging 150 a day at the moment. Most of those are unwanted press releases, but I still need to sift through them. Then there's digests of posts from various useful email groups I signed up to on topics of interest. Of the rest maybe only 3 or 4 will be actual offers of freelance work.

Then there's my RSS feed - again, working from home this is something I dip into at convenient moments. Now, I get home and 200 items wait to be read. Obviously I'm not reading all of them - some feeds I'll just hit "mark all as read" to get the total down.

By the time I've done that plus logged into a couple of work forums to keep apace with freelance colleagues and just gossip a bit, cooked some food, watched an hour's TV and done any other chores, it's 10 or 11pm and I'm dead on my feet. Last week, I was supposed to be at 3 events after work but cancelled as I was too tired and domestic stuff had priority.

And there was no rest at the weekend. I had a major copywriting job on, with a very attached deadline. It's the one that pays all my bills every month and therefore must be done. But it meant I had to cancel a planned trip to the cinema and another optional social engagement. I spent the entire weekend writing and researching, finally mailing the job back to the client at 11pm, along with my invoice. Then I fell into bed.

It's been 3 weeks since I started juggling 2 jobs and I am dead on my feet. My eyeballs felt like they'd been sandpapered when I awoke this morning and I struggled to concentrate in the office. And tomorrow morning I'm working in another city, so I'll need to get even earlier - at 5 - and won't be home till 7.30 in the evening.

How I'll manage this for another 10 weeks I have no idea. Something's going to give...

18 January 2010

A bug and the buzz

I did something this morning that I last did in June 2003. I rang in sick. Six and a half years ago, the phone call was about my back problem and I ended up off work for 3 months. Since then, of course, my boss has been me - on the days I'm unwell, I usually juggle stuff so I can have extra naps to sleep off a lurgy or a fit. If I have a cold, I work in my PJs and dressing gown, turn up the heating a notch and just get on with it - no worrying about infecting other colleagues as there's no one to pass my germs onto.

It felt very weird ringing in to say I wouldn't be turning up this morning. I'd been up half the night, throwing up, and as soon as I mentioned this my lovely new boss said: "Stay right where you are! Don't even think about coming in." He's right - it's possible I just ate something that disagreed with me, but it's the season for norovirus, a highly contagious bug also known as the winter vomiting disease. And the last thing I want to do is fell an entire newsroom if I have it. I probably don't - my stomach has been calm since 4am and I'm just resting up now. Sorry if that's TMI.

I offered to work from home but the truth is I'm really missing the buzz of the newsroom today. I never thought I'd say that - I've become so used to the calm and quietness of working alone that I dreaded returning to the bustle of a busy workplace. I thought my eardrums would burst on my first few days there - the TV screens (at least 2 different channels) competing for volume with the radio station, the ringing phones, the chatter... I felt quite ill from it all and was relieved to retreat into silence on my return home at night.

Today, I feel like I've been cut off. The quiet here feels oppressive and right now I'm missing the Monday editorial meeting to plan the week ahead. I'm also missing all the chit-chat and I don't know quite what to do with myself here. On the plus side, I was able to listen to all of the show I'm currently working on - usually I only hear snatches of it between phone calls and conversations or intense concentration. I'd set up several of the slots for today so it was a relief to hear all my guests had not only turned up but also gave good radio.

I'm going to flop on the sofa now and watch DVDs. And hope I'll be well enough to go into the office tomorrow. And I never thought I'd be saying that again!

16 January 2010

No swear zone

Anyone who's ever worked in a newsroom of any sort will know that it's a place for the ripest of language. I was already a fairly accomplished swearer by the time I started my first job at the tender age of 16 and 3/4, probably because even the mildest of curses in the parental home would be rewarded with a hefty backhander round the head - like smoking, I took it up to annoy them, although I was mostly careful not to utter such words in the presence of my parents because of the knowledge of what would happen if I did so. Swearing and smoking were kept for outside the familial environment before I left home.

And then I started work. I was thrust into a place where every other word was a "fuck" in one form or another and it became as commonplace for me to speak like my colleagues as it was to breathe. Every publication I have worked for since has been no different. Hacks swear like troopers. It's a fact of life.

With one notable exception - on air. Print hacks mostly don't have to worry about this but the day you first get asked to do a broadcast is the day you start panicking. I can't actually remember the first time I was asked to do a "phoner" but I do remember going into a cold sweat over the fear I might utter something bleepable over live radio.I scrawled a few notes for myself ahead of time on the main points I wanted to put across on air, then spent several hours repeating the mantra, "Don't swear. Don't swear" to myself until it was imprinted on my brain. Fear of speaking on live radio faded against the fear of swearing. Somehow I managed not to say anything even vaguely Anglo-Saxonish that first time and I felt immense relief at surviving the ordeal, my reputation as a reliable and articulate talking head intact.

Since then, I've done live radio many times as a guest "expert" of some sort. The fear of swearing never goes away - the last thing you want is the shame of hearing the presenter apologising on your behalf for the "shit" that just slipped effortlessly out. I've only once done TV, but that was a pre-record so I was more relaxed as I knew that if I slipped up it would be edited out seamlessly. Indeed, I was so relaxed that I managed not to swear without even thinking about it.

Now though, I find myself toiling for a major broadcaster. Rather unexpectedly, I discovered 10 days in that a certain slot on a certain show requires 2 or 3 of the newsroom hacks to drop in to the studio and go live on air for around 3 minutes to have a quick chat about some topical issue, the aim being to get listeners to phone in with their own stories. Thus it was only yesterday that I was given 5 minutes' notice to hike down the corridor and be a live talking head on the pressing issue of taking one's pet to work. Never mind the earthquake in Haiti - a quick chat about having your dog under your desk was apparently more urgent.

I didn't even have time to think about not swearing. By the time I'd pitched up at the studio and had a much-needed swig of full-strength Americano, I was already on air and opining on the joy of having my boy sprawled on my desk at home. It dawned on me several minutes later, as we filed out of the studio to head back to the newsroom, that I'd be doing a lot more of these over the next few months. It appears that most of my new colleagues are strangely reluctant to go on air, regardless of the topic du jour. I'm under no illusions as to why. But I'm there to learn new stuff so I feel I have to do it. It's only a matter of time before my mask slips and I say "fuck" on a live broadcast. It'll end in tears. Mine.

12 January 2010

Work-life imbalance

So, I'm a week into my staff job and I'm struggling with normal life. I've got used to the alarm going off and I've more or less adjusted to catching the rush hour bus. But clearly I have been spoiled by the freelance lifestyle as I've spent the last 6 years organising my work around my own needs. I've got used to popping out to the shops in the daytime, arranging medical appointments to suit my schedule, napping during the afternoon if I feel like it then working in the evening to catch up.

Suddenly my time is no longer my own but I have forgotten how to be a wage slave. The life skills I once had that enabled me to juggle the domestic stuff in the evenings and at weekends appear to have deserted me. I can't remember how to organise my needs around my work.

Last week, I found myself dropping off my prescription renewal at my GP's surgery before it had even opened, just so I could catch a bus to the office.Then the snow conspired firstly to delay my picking up the renewed prescription then to collect my medicine. I finally found a late-opening pharmacy last night and hurried there after work. What normally takes 2 days has taken a whole week. By the same token, the snow meant no grocery shop was done last week so I sat down at my PC at the weekend to order online and arrange an evening delivery. Fat chance. Me and everyone else had failed to shop last week and there was not a single delivery slot available for any evening this week at the three supermarkets I tried. I ended up grabbing the essentials myself at a nearby branch last night (after getting my meds) and having to bring my shopping home by cab.

I have forgotten to put the washing machine on every night - I usually do it in the daytime. And I urgently need to book a dental appointment and one for the optician. For the first time in 6 years I'm going to have to ask permission for the time off for these. Oh, and I missed a parcel delivery today. My regular postie knows I work from home, but now I'll have to go and queue at the sorting office on Saturday morning instead. Gah.

How do staffers manage? Because I'm buggered if I can remember how I used to, way back in another lifetime. If anyone knows the answer, please put it on a postcard addressed to "Dear Useless Ex-Freelancer".

I am, however, enjoying being a staffer for now. It has its perks - the company is excellent (at least so far) and I've learned quite a bit of new stuff over the last week. Tomorrow, I will find out what the company's plans are for me for the next 12 weeks. It's been a bit unstructured to date, partly because the snow took over on the news front, meaning I was given whatever work took priority, and partly because my new bosses have not been around much. So the meeting tomorrow should give me some idea of how my work will be shaped between now and Easter.

I am both frustrated and amused by the technology I'm working with in the newsroom. I bought myself a new workhorse PC in May - custom-built to my own specs and fabulously expensive, but tax-deductible and state-of-the-art enough to serve me well for at least 3 years, hopefully 4. It's superfast and I have the latest versions of the software I use for work and personal stuff. In the newsroom, I'm being forced to use Internet Explorer 7 instead of my customised Firefox for browsing and every page takes at least 20 seconds to load (and to reload if I go back a page). Their version of Word is 2003. I've had to relearn how to use Outlook for email instead of Thunderbird. I can't install anything I want to improve my working practices Because I Am Not Allowed To. My screen is tiny, compared to my superlarge flat-screen monitor at home.

Most entertaining is the ridiculously clunky keyboard, which looks like it is at least 10 years old and probably is. The keys are so high, they remind me of the Remington I used to bash out copy on in my first-ever job in 1978. I've lost 3 fingernails since I started staffing. Not that my nails are anything to brag about - they've been ruined ever since that first Remington and break if I so much as look at them but I don't think I've had quite so many casualties in such a short space of time before. The nails are a small sacrifice for the experience I'm getting though.

And now, dear reader, I really must go and load the washing machine...

09 January 2010

The staff, the snow, the ghost and the headhunter

So, it's a new year and on Monday I went back to work. Only this time it involved going out to work. For someone else. I'm usually up by 6 anyway, but on Sunday night I set my alarm clock, just in case. Just as well - for once my insomnia went into hiding and I slept like the dead. The 6am bleeping was a vicious reminder of a world I left behind 6 years ago - a world in which one showers, dresses, makes up their face and eats breakfast long before the dawn breaks and sane people (like my former freelance self) don't do such things until after 5 hours' work and a spot of brunch.

Forget this week's snow (for now, anyway) - last week's still lay on the pavement, reduced to a thin layer of highly polished, invisible glass. Despite the fact that I'd chosen to wear my favourite sweater dress for my first day back in an office, I was forced to leave the house in my hiking boots, so I could negotiate the icy streets, and carry my heels in a bag. I had to perform a hurried, undignified change of footwear in reception on arrival.

My new boss came to collect me and I was whisked off on a whistle-stop tour round the newsroom and introduced me to about 50 people whose names I promptly forgot. I then spent a leisurely morning sitting in the "ops room" where radio producers produce a show from next to the studio, watching what was going on and reading my way through a huge heap of weekend newspaper supplements to drum up feature ideas for the weekday morning magazine show. Then there was an editorial meeting, so I pitched a batch of ideas and was chuffed that they were all accepted.

This laid-back start to my new job didn't last long. Overnight, a blizzard struck, burying my city in more than 20cm of frozen whiteness. Instinct kicked in when I looked out of the window and I was out of the house far earlier than planned - not only was it obvious that it would be a struggle to get to work, but that my colleagues would be struggling too and yet the news still had to be got out, this time to a public depending on it. After a long and fruitless wait for a bus, I struck lucky with a lone, passing hackney cab with its light on and made it in more or less on time. I'd barely got my coat off before I was ordered to hit the phones and start ringing round the bus companies to find out which services were operating (I could have told them without phoning - none. Why else did I arrive by cab?). With only a skeleton staff in, it was all hands on deck and despite being the new girl (with no idea how anything worked there) I had to muck in like everyone else to keep the news flowing. I work hard for myself at home but I'd reached a new level of shattered by the time I finally got home that night.

There was only one rough moment. I was temporarily sent back to the ops room to help on the phones there. The producer told me to get a pen and I started hunting for one on the desk. This was a major broadcaster, right? So I expected to find pens. Wrong. I have pens in my bag, of course, so I reached for that. Clearly not fast enough. The producer said witheringly to me:
"You do have a pen, don't you? Hurry up! I mean, if you want to be a journalist..."
I made a split-second decision not to brain her with my handbag and replied, as politely as possible, through gritted teeth:
"Actually, I've been a print hack for more than 30 years and was filing copy before your parents met. I already am a journalist. I'm just new to radio. And of course I have a pen. In my bag. But I didn't think it unreasonable to expect to find pens on the desk here."

The rest of the week passed in a blur. I was taken off the newsdesk on Wednesday as I wasn't needed there, but I was kept busy learning how to use ENPS, how to write radio cue scripts, researching my pitches, pre-interviewing show guests and finding experts. All in all, it was fun and exciting and ever so scary, but weirdly familiar despite being a totally different environment to what I'm used to. I loved every moment of it. Apart from the patronising comment in the ops room. I mean, I know I look younger than my calendar age but surely no one could seriously mistake me for a 20-year-old workie...

Two surprises rounded off my week. I got home on Friday evening to find my answering machine bleeping. The message was rather incomprehensible due to lots of background noise and crackling that made me think the caller was playing a slice of dodgy 1950s vinyl down the line at me. Several replays and I was able to decipher her name and number, though not her company, and discern that she was a headhunter. Intrigue! I shall call back on Monday to see what she wants, although it's unlikely I'll be interested in any offer unless it's goldplated with bells on.

Then I noticed my Skype phone was flashing. There was an "add contact" request from none other than my very first editor, the man who had such faith in me he offered me a job more or less on the spot when I literally walked into his magazine off the street. I was 16 and a half, had just walked out of school and had bleached blond spiky hair and what's now called "attitude", in spades. I worked my socks off for him for 2 and a half years until the magazine folded, bankrupted by one defamation suit too many. We lost touch not long after. I moved away to work elsewhere and never saw him again, even though a couple of years ago I did some freelance features for one of his newer magazines (on that occasion I asked the editor to say hi to him for me, but clearly the message didn't get passed on).

Once I'd got over my shock, I sent him an IM on Skype and within 5 minutes he was ringing my landline. It was incredible to be talking to him again after nearly 30 years. He was exactly as I remembered him - a cheeky maverick, with vision and a mischievous sense of humour, as well as a nose for journalism and amazing entrepreneurial skills - and we had a great time reminiscing about our days on the mag. I owe my career to this man and as soon as he suggested tracking down the rest of the old team of staff and having a reunion party I promised him I'd be on the first train there. And I will. I'd work for him again if he offered me a job. I'd work for him tomorrow if he asked.

Hell, it's rare to get a call like that. It made my week. No, scratch that. It's made my year and 2010 is barely 10 days old. Something in my blood tells me I'm going to have an amazing year, after the start I've had this week.

Excited? You bet.

02 January 2010

Freelance goals

I don't really bother making new year resolutions - I rarely manage to stick to them (like going to the gym more often - that usually fades away after a few weeks). It's much easier to have goals, especially on the work front. And for a freelance, goals are important. Not vague ones like finding more/bigger/faster-paying clients but specific measurable goals.

I'm not about to lapse into management jargon at this point, with mutterings of SMARTs and SWOTs, but I'm aware I need to make some manageable changes. The upside of freelancing is the flexibility and control you have over your working practices (no boss, no commute, hours to suit...). The downside is that freelancing can turn you into a slob of a hermit with a severe internet addiction if you're not careful.

I'm not planning any work goals yet as the future looks too unpredictable right now. I'm about to become a staffer for 3 months. After that, I may or may not return to freelancing depending on how the staff position works out. And I'm also planning to start up a new journalism venture with a colleague - how hands-on I'll be with that will also depend on the staff position.

So, bearing in mind that I'm in no position to plan anything much concrete workwise from 1 April onwards, this year's goals are more personal.

Get dressed every day
Like a lot of freelances, my daily commute involves a trip from my bed (in my dressing gown) to my desk via the kitchen kettle and I'm frequently appalled at my inability to get dressed until late afternoon (sometimes not at all, if I'm not going out in the evening). Going out to work for someone else should knock that bad habit into touch. From Monday, my alarm will be going off at 6am daily, I'll be hopping straight into the shower, and be dressed and made up with time for an hour's home work before I need to catch my bus.

Do the ironing
Getting dressed, particularly for someone else's workplace, means I'll no longer be able to ignore the basket of ironing in my spare room. Some of it has been sitting there for 6 months. But no more - I need crease-free shirts now. Much as I hate ironing, an hour a week should keep it all under control. Let's hope I can keep it up from April.

Get more exercise
The other downside to freelancing is it makes you lazy. Well, it makes me lazy. I love the gym routine but I don't have one in my neighbourhood. And while I have the noble intention to get outside every day for fresh air and a walk, in practice if it's raining or I'm busy with a deadline it doesn't happen. On weekdays, I may only go out if I run out of ground coffee, need to go to the post office or have a meeting in town. My new commute involves a decent walk to the bus stop and back and hopefully I'll be wearing out the carpets at least a little at my new workplace. I might even shift some of my extra kilos without too much extra effort.

Lose the kilos
See above. I have a specific goal here for the number I want to lose. My eating habits are currently rather erratic. I fuel up on coffee and frequently forget to eat breakfast and/or lunch when I'm really busy. The result is that when my blood sugar plunges I just grab whatever's to hand to refuel. Going out to work should restore good habits - I hate leaving home without breakfast inside me and I'll now get a proper lunch break too. Regular meals (including cooking properly) plus the exercise should help me drop the 2 sizes I plan to.

Get off teh interwebz
I've always been a bit of a net nut, ever since I got my first email account in 1990, but working from home makes it far too easy to spend hours on it every day. My RSS feed has doubled in size in the last 18 months, I find it hard to stay away from Twitter and the Facebook habit I managed to scale back a year or so ago returned with a vengeance in late November. Acquiring an iPhone last spring compounded the problem of being permanently connected - it's rarely more than a metre away from me so I keep checking Twitter, Facebook and my mail. I worked away from home for a week in November and, although I still had my iPhone on the go, I didn't mind ignoring the Twitter stream and was happy to delete large chunks of my RSS feed unread. So I know I can manage without it. This year I plan to read more books in the evenings I'm home, instead of surfing. I'm aiming for a book a week (currently it's about 1 a month).

Take time off
The last time I had a holiday was in April 2008. It was a pleasant week away but left a bad taste in my mouth - not long after my return I broke up with my formerly beloved P. A year ago, I hit burn-out. Despite my best intentions, I didn't take a break. Partly I was too disorganised and partly I was too nervous to turn work down during the recession. What I should have done during a dead spell is take a late-booking flight somewhere and just gone. Lesson learned. I'm in the middle of booking a Mediterranean break for April this very afternoon. And I'll take another in late September. And no, I'm not going to take my netbook with me. I'm sure I can find a net caff just to track my work emails while away. The rest can be ignored.

Get out more
I do actually get out quite a bit in the evenings - 2-3 times a week on average. The problem is that whether socialising or networking I'm usually in the pub. So this year, I'm aiming to go to the cinema more often and also the theatre. I'm starting small with the stage, with the intention of catching a modest 6 performances of whatever. I joined a film club some months ago but went woefully few times. The plan for 2010 is to go at least once a fortnight to the cinema.

And that's it. I'll be tracking these goals over the next 12 months with a full report-back at year-end.