I have a lot on my plate right now, as I’m fond of blogging this 2016. “So busy!” about half of my Otaku Links posts seem to have begun. I’m a journalist at Forbes, a reviewer at Anime News Network, an affiliate blogger at Gunpla 101 and at least three other sites, a freelance web designer for practically anyone who will have me, and now a WordPress developer for a DC think tank. All that’s on top of life things, like taking Japanese language classes, shopping around my latest book idea to publishers, and occasionally doing the laundry.
It’s a far cry from the way my husband makes money, as we realize anew every year around tax time, when he collects his single W2 from a job he’s worked for five years and counting, and I juggle a pile of 1099-MISC files from ten or more companies. And while my income is a lot more variable, we often end up bringing comparable amounts to the table. But while I work seven days a week for it, his workday almost always ends at 5 PM.
It works for him (and for many other people!) but, to me, full time employment doesn’t equal security—it means somebody else is calling the shots in my career. So for the last five years, I’ve cobbled together my living out of a lot of different things. You could say I have trust issues, but the bottom line is this: I am not one to put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t expect one employer, or one project, to keep me afloat for life, even if business is good right now.
So instead of one job, I think of my career as a rotation of long-term projects. If one falls through, I still have all the others. That’s why I do it; now I want to tell you how.
Look at the big picture
From middle school until graduate school, I used a weekly planner to stay organized. It was hard enough getting through one week; I didn’t need or want to look further ahead.
Now, that’s all I do. Planning starts on December 31, when I set major goals for the year ahead. I usually set twelve and dedicate each month to one project. For example, January was dedicated to writing my new affiliate guide, this month I’m building a PHP/MySQL database site, and next month is scheduled as a “catch-up” for ongoing projects before I go to Japan.
My planner structure also matches this twelve-month visualization. I now use monthly planners so I can see how the month’s goal is coming together amid all the chaos. I got my current planner at Muji Times Square for $1.50 and it’s a bargain. This January 2016 layout leaves a lot to be desired; like I ought to have written down my dedicated affiliate guide writing days, but instead I just made room for it in the gaps. I like to think I’ve improved since then.
Work in bite-sized bits
Of course, looking at life 30 days at a time can be pretty overwhelming. That’s why I’ve had to make peace with the idea that I can only do a little at a time. I can’t fill my Forbes monthly quota today, but I can write just one article. I can’t write an entire book this evening, but I can write an entire outline and get started on Chapter One.
This has been harder than you’d think. I used to be all about the checklist. A day where I can’t check off a project felt like a day in stagnation. I still have checklists now, but they consist of smaller bits of larger projects. I use Evernote’s checklist feature to make a note for each of my ongoing projects that consists of a checklist of smaller tasks. Then, every evening when I am creating a to-do list for the following day, I put those tasks on my master checklist for every day.
I truly believe this shift in my thinking about accomplishments is what has allowed me to write books. I used to be too overwhelmed by the idea of a writing project I couldn’t finish in one day. But by thinking of it as a group of much smaller writing projects made it possible.
Know your limits
I want this to be a guide about how you can do every single thing you’ve ever aspired to. But there’s a caveat—you can’t do it all at one time. You need to set a realistic schedule.
When you work seven days a week, burnout can be a risk. I keep it at bay by scheduling breaks as seriously as I schedule tasks. I’m certain I come across as pretty lazy, because sometimes you can find me watching anime on a Wednesday morning. Being able to occasionally goof off on weekdays is one of the freedoms of setting my own schedule, and taking full advantage of that reminds me that I’m not an overworked masochist. I could get more done if I took fewer breaks, but I’ve been there and I’ve seen the raw, red-eyed extent of that burnout.
Life is supposed to be enjoyable, and I don’t want to get my only enjoyment through the rush of finishing a major project. I don’t want to work all the time, and neither do you.
Sometimes the projects I set for myself in December don’t resonate anymore in September. That’s OK. It’s all part of my end-of-the-month reassessment, where I ask myself, “Are these still the projects I want to be spending my energy on?” That’s when I weigh the sacrifice each of my projects require over the amount of value they bring to my career.
Take my WordPress development job. I know if I got rid of it I could free up my schedule to create two or even three new projects per month. But I also have to consider which projects are bringing in the most value for me, in this case, in the form of regular income and building significantly on my coding skills. In exchange for that value, it’s a job that takes up a chunk of my time and no small amount of mental energy. Right now, it’s totally worth it. A year from now, who knows? I consider everything temporary, so it can wait for my next reassessment.
The most important thing is that I never want to feel like I’m indebted to a project because the boss is nice, or more than 75% of my income comes from there (I don’t want to be in that situation, period). I always want to look at projects as worth my time while they provide value to me in the form of money or exposure or experience, and say goodbye when they don’t.
A lot of my thinking on this modular style of career comes from Jen Dziura of Get Bullish (whom you may remember as the publisher of my affiliate linking guide) and while her advice has a feminist bent, I assure you it’s for everyone who has a job.
Would you call your career a modular one or a 9-to-5? If you’re interested in making money off of your geeky interests, do you see that as a side hustle or an eventual full-time gig?