A month by the river

Recovering from a heavy cold and an excellent holiday. The northern lights are insane, and Iceland is full of lovely people.

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Doesn’t Ste look creepy in that photo?

Work

I joined IF part time last month and it’s been great. Three projects – two we’ll be talking about soon, one building on the work I did for them earlier this year – each very different and asking new things of me.

On top of that I wrote a speech and started work for two new clients. That’s probably about my limit as far as context-shifting goes (six chunks of my brain spinning roughly in tandem) and it’s been good to see that and not add another job to my plate.

Some of that’s about taking time out. Holidays, and little moments.

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It’s nice being back by the river. I moved to London twelve years ago and spent every day walking back and forth across Waterloo Bridge, from halls to seminars or work, and it’s nice having the Thames in the rhythm of a day again.

A month of summer

You know, not much to update. August has been relatively quiet. The few bits of speechwriting and talks I’ve been doing have gone slowly as people go on holiday or spend time with family. The same’s been true of most of the bits of copywriting and spec work. A lot of people warned me about that: August and Christmas can be the times where the income sags a bit.

That said, I’ve been setting up work for autumn. Two new clients, really different projects for each, and a regular arrangement with IF that’ll point me at new problems. I’m excited about that.

Breaks

After last month’s griping I managed a few nights and days off, including an excellent couple of nights in Knepp. Late this month I’m heading out to Iceland for a week off. Feels good!

Six months of habits

So, I started a company to do freelance copywriting and strategy development six months ago. It’s been good. But long enough has passed that I’m starting to think critically about my habits so I can make the next six months better.

I’m going to write them here to help me learn.

Tools

FreeAgent has been essential. It’s nearly good enough I could use it without an accountant, but I don’t quite have the confidence to do that just yet. Maybe in a couple of years.

I’ve been lucky with clients so far that Google Drive has been a suitable way of getting copy and documents to people. That won’t last forever, but it’s worked this far. I’m still bouncing between Google Slides and Keynote week-to-week. Slides just isn’t reliable enough to do what I need it to. It’s very close though.

I’ve been doing Ben’s One Notebook per project for the first time and that’s been extremely useful for separating chunks of thinking and drafting. I’m also running an occasional notebook because it’s too valuable not to. I still do my best thinking by writing stuff down; it’s the fastest way to find out whether I’m wrong.

Trello, Slack, Clear all useful. Daily utilities, but… not irreplaceable. Slack in particular has introduced different problems (more on that below).

Scheduling and estimates

This is interesting. I think my estimates are pretty good. A lot of that comes down to the practise I got into at GDS, and creating the rhythms I need to get stuff done in time.

But that means I’m not building in a buffer. I haven’t yet worked out if it’s better to estimate high and bill low (‘I thought it would take four days, but actually it took three and a half’). Right now I’m keeping them in line, but I should probably keep that in mind for a few future gigs.

What I’m not taking into account though is Slack. I’m not in the habit of fine tuning my availability there, which means I’ll check in on conversations and feedback outside of agreed hours.

A few options: be firmer about the hours, agree a ‘Slack tax’ with a client, or just accept that’s how this stuff goes for freelancers. After all, this is just Slack doing to me what email/mobile phones/afternoon post did for people in the recent past. I think I need to work out ‘What’s right for this job?’ a bit more clearly than I do now.

Motivation

I was going to write something about goals, but that’s not quite right. Not when it comes to work. I have things I want to do, but very few of them are directly tied to my professional life. That’s been a common theme for years. Often those things have led to work, through routes weird and delightful, but that’s not often the point of doing them.

So something I’d like to do in the next six months is work out what motivates me to keep working outside of paying rent.

I know people who’d stop working in a heartbeat, if the opportunity came up, but I don’t think I’m there. I like making things. I’d like to get to a place in life where rent is cheaper, for whatever reason, and I want to feel like I’ll have the thrust to do the next thing even when I don’t have to.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to cut down on things that don’t motivate me. Restarting Small Observation was an attempt to kickstart a new daily rhythm. It didn’t manage that, and in some ways worked against new routines. So I’m stopping. Similarly, dropping in and out of sessions of Battlefront elevated my tension in downtime instead of letting me zone out, which is counterproductive. Cooking, jogging, painting… those are great and my mind wanders. I need to make time for more of that.

Get away

I’ve been away a lot in the last six months, but almost every trip has been tied to a job, a mission, or Marioke. I’m going to take a last-minute break in August to shake that up. Actual holidays, Matt: take them.

Studio*

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*flat. So, Ann went freelance last month too. For the last week we’ve been working side by side. New routines, a bit of adjustment, a list of things around the flat that need buying/changing to make life easier on us. It’s been pretty good!

Small Observation

I knew ahead of Ann joining me in the flat that I’d need to get better at a few routines, and restarting The Bureau of Small Observation seemed a good way of doing that. I also like writing in a different style to my freelance work.

Woods Bagot

I’ve started a longer-form bit of work for architecture firm Woods Bagot. Again, I’m basing the copywriting fairly directly off of a transcription. I found at the NHS that was an awesome way of delivering voice, tone and ideas back to a client, while still giving myself room for the restructuring, moving of thoughts and rewriting needed to make complex ideas much much simpler.

I’ve found something interesting with this one. Because it’s a much longer body of work than I usually do, I’ve been able to see patterns in thinking and content emerge from it much more clearly than is often the case. It’s an absolute gift for drafting.

IF

Their new site is live! Lovely to be at their shindig the other week. I’ve also been helping them with blogging and pitch decks.

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What else

Stayed at a barn on a nature reserve and watched an owl hunting, that was pretty cool. Painted some ghostly things. I’ll be spending a chunk of the next month going in and out of London helping look after some family, which means good train time/thinking time.

A month of lining things up

Obviously the big news of the month was getting engaged, but work-wise it’s been interesting too…

New clients

I made a conscious choice not to pursue too many leads before proposing: I had exactly enough stuff in my head already.

The other side of that trip I’ve started chatting to more people again. Most were just good chats, but I’ve had a couple of really interesting projects spill out of them. One was a short-deadline speech that went down extremely well, the other a longer-form bit of a work I should be able to talk about next month.

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Still a lovely team. Along with some more work for their site launch I helped Sarah out with her Blue Yard talk, an appeal to a bunch of decentralisation/encryption developers to think more about design. Sounds like it struck the right balance of provocation and encouragement.

Holiday

I went away again. Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmo, Home. A lovely trip. I handled the anxiety of leaving work behind much better than when I went to Snowden. Also, it was my birthday. Good stuff!

A month of god kaffe

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AHO

Oslo was excellent. I spent two weeks with first-year MA students, on a brief called ‘Talking with People’. Their task was to do some speculative public service redesign thinking/prototyping (I didn’t much mind what they looked into or what form it took) and present their final projects with reference to how research with people shaped their process. The “work” was a McGuffin. I wanted to see people in presentations, hear some stories from outside the classroom, and hear about students talking to people outside of their cohort.

The brief came out of discussions Mosse and I had after my second time being an external censor there. Project after project were presented as if they’d sprouted from the minds of isolated geniuses tucked in a corner. In most cases that wasn’t true – they’d improved precisely because there had been testing and research to improve a project – but the student weren’t very good at showing that. I wanted that front and centre in this project, and the students did some really excellent stuff in response.

As part of the couple of weeks I also did some speaking for the local IxDA chapter. Nice bunch of people with some fascinating questions, and a really nice opportunity to put the last few years at GDS in a new context.

IF

Their interim site is up, which starts road-testing some of the messaging I’ve been working on with them. The last month was about refining a few of the core phrases and sentences them before a concentrated burst on that this month. They’re a really excellent team, and I’m really enjoying working with them.

Snowdon

I also went on my first holiday. I have to say, the anxiety of leaving jobs open/unfinished got under my skin a bit – I can only hope I’ll get better at that – but walking up a mountain through clouds was about as far from typing at home as can be. More of that sort of thing.

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A month of new things

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That’s the new setup. Freelancing’s treating me well so far – two clients, and a bunch of interesting things going on that made the transition out of GDS last month really easy.

The only setback was damaging my mac last week (coffee spill, like an idiot). GDS got me into good habits though, so no work was lost – just a few hours of configuring a new (and pricey) machine. C’est la vie!

AHO

My first big project is two weeks of teaching at AHO in April. Planning for that is going really well: I’ve got a solid brief for the students and it’s making me draw out very explicit lessons about product communications from my time at GDS (and Last.fm actually) that have started coming in use elsewhere too.

I’ve also got a couple of talks lined up out there for organisations sponsoring the trip. Again, that’s been a really nice prompt for thinking about the last few years and pinning particular stories and approaches down.

IF

Started some work for IF too, helping them pin down how they talk about their work. It’s been extremely interesting to hear about the world adjacent to – and sometimes of – the civic tech/tech policy/worthy projects world GDS inhabits…

GDC

…which was something I didn’t think about at all during GDC.*

Hanging out with the One Life Left team was reminder of how much work goes into getting that show out. During GDC they recorded a show every day (one hour of prep, one and a half hours of recording, two hours of editing) and ran two epic Marioke parties. If I join them next year though I am absolutely tacking a holiday to the end of it – the event was brilliant and exhausting.

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It’s also nice to be with my partner while she’s in a professional headspace, a reminder that she’s an excellent producer and showrunner.

Other stuff

I dropped into Labour Digital a couple of times, finished up my first hobby project, and continued my run of excellent coffees. I also said goodbye to GDS – I miss the team’s slackbot already – and to Phonogram.

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* Except to the extent that the wealth gap is so screamingly visible there. Projects like Code For America feel like extremely natural responses to that context. I am stunned it isn’t larger… until I remember than the city’s actually relatively small.