Thursday, February 27, 2020

Two Habits.

I am occasionally asked for advice. On various things, but mainly how to get your first job, how to promote, what pen to buy, that sort of thing.

But over time two things have stood out as the most important things to pay attention to, for ANYONE working freelance. At the end of the year, I reach a certain 'milestone' birthday, and these are the two single habits I'm most grateful I instigated a quarter of a century ago. It's time to write them down. If you've ever asked me for advice, here's probably the most important piece I could give you.


When I was 15, I walked to school and biked everywhere because my boyfriend lived a few miles away up a hill. A couple of years later, the new boyfriend ALSO lived several miles away up a hill: if I wanted a social life, I had to get pedalling.

When I moved away to college, I walked everywhere or took the bus. This walking, combined with carrying lots of stuff, ensured my legs and lungs stayed strong, even though a more or less constant state of deadline-driven anxiety kept my body weight low, compromised further by the odd minor breakdown due to 'My Creative Life Is Over'! or 'I just know my best work is behind me!!' dramas, when my body decided it just couldn't eat, even though I wanted to.

Just before graduation, my NEW boyfriend (not one of the first two, and not the one I've got now) was given a car in repayment of a weed debt that couldn't be settled by the owner. He didn't need it, so he gave it to me. Once past the anger I felt at having a car forced on me that I could no way afford to run, I realised this custard yellow Citroën 2CV might actually be quite fun, and very useful.

I also realised that once I'd moved back home for a bit, started driving and stopped biking uphill and walking to college, the organic exercise I did daily would dry up. So 26 years ago, I joined the gym.

Now let's be clear about my motivation here. 'Being Thin' has never been a goal;  =that’s vague and difficult to aim for anyway.  I've mainly been blessed with the type of body that could eat to its heart's content and not expand (thanks Dad; thanks Brown Grandma). I've got a racing metabolism and a hearty appetite; a very fortunate pairing. And I've got small bones, but those bones are at risk from a family history of arthritis; I watched Blonde Grandma suffer, her little feet and sore legs curling up with the pain of afflicted bones. I knew from an early age I would have to do everything I possibly could to avoid this.

So I went to the gym to lift weights and be strong: strong bones would mean a healthy body which would mean I could work hard, and for as long as possible - into my 80s, I imagined. Grip strength, good posture, a strong back, sturdy legs and stamina were going to be as vital a set of tools as my pencils and Mac. My sister and I met at the gym 2-3 times a week, even when I moved out to a village and had to bike the 24 mile round trip to get there.

We struggled, we laughed, we worked out to 90s dance hits and wore black lace crop tops *would love to insert photograph here*. She eventually moved away and the crop tops were eased out for something more practical, but I've never stopped going to that gym. The same one. I might have experimented alongside it with a running obsession, kettlecise, aerobics waaaay back and years of yoga, but 26 years later, I'm still in there several times a week, through skinniness, not-so-skinniness, ultra-busy-ness, hectic times, stressful, buoyant and sad times. It's where I go to think, relax, focus, and push out the bullshit. If you were in any doubt, let me tell you: it will try, but there's no room for the bullshit of your mind when you're trying to lift something as heavy as you.

Filming a yoga DVD, when I was a yoga FIEND.

Also filming a yoga DVD.
In fact I'm going to the gym more now than I ever have. It's like a management system for my mind, as well as the obvious benefits for the bod. I'm more hench than I've ever been, and I'm curious and excited about that. When I rope-grapple, any nonsense thoughts that try to waft in are simply punched in the face by the effort of keeping going. Whatever I'm fretting about is KO'd by a few deadlifts. Since technique is everything, with injury a real possibility if you do something badly, you have to be totally present. (Needless to say, the phone is banned from coming to the gym with me.)

My brain, quite a lot of the time. A BIT TIRED.
Running. When I was a running FIEND (I went off it overnight. Just like that.)


I've always been careful with money, sometimes a bit too careful. If I've got money, I angst myself to death about spending it, with big servings of guilt when I buy something nice 'for me', even though I WILL buy the pricey-to-ship American makeup and the big bat necklace, while also basically being a proper fretful tight-arse (I view this as essentially a good quality to have. I can thank my Dad for that one, and Grandpa, further back, who was a self employed businessman all his life).

So. Aged 24 I opted into the pension scheme as soon as possible when I was doing some part-time lecturing a few months after graduating. Just a couple of mornings a week, it was tiny and it would not rake in a luxury-enabling fortune on its own, but it was a start. And the only thing I really understood about pensions was You Have To Start. The lecturing hours grew to a 3 days a week, and thus did the pension contributions.

I did lectures and talks at other colleges and noticed I could be enrolled into a teeny slice of pension action there, too, if I chose to work on a contract (even if it was just two lectures a year) rather than 'per lecture' - so I did. Doing lecturing alongside illustration ended after five years or so, when sleep became too important to continue missing out on, but the pensions remain in place - static, but still there.

And as soon as the business could handle it, I started a company pension. A carefully chosen, well-performing, ethical private pension scheme; starting small, but increasing as time went on. You can claim a company pension back through your business - it counts as an expense or a 'cost' - and bloody hell, am I glad that I did. Even though the scare stories about pensions abound, and there is never ANY guarantee a pension fund is going to perform the way you want it to, with monitoring and annual reviews, it can do well. Every month, that money could easily be spent on something else - but I don't notice it leaving. I can't afford to notice it; it has become habitual, it happens in the background. And let me tell you how much better I sleep at night knowing it's there.

I was recently talking to someone on Facebook who was asking about starting a pension, as a freelancer. For one reason or another I worked out they were younger than me, but not much, and they were just starting a pension. They asked me how much they should pay in, starting now, to be able to retire at 65 - and I was too fearful of scaring them to tell them the actual figure I had in my mind, so I advised a professional opinion.

Our pensions are by no means putting us clear of the woods yet, but we have them. There's something, it's been growing for years, and it's doing OK.

Sarah's conclusions are therefore these.
If you are starting out as a freelancer - or even actually, just, NOW:

1) Start your fitness. 
Don't wait till you NEED to; it can be done; but it will be harder; you will suffer more!
Note: Whatever it is you do, you have to like it. If you go to boxing classes and secretly hate it, you'll never go. If what you choose requires you to go to classes and you're not a 'joiner', you won't go to those either. I hated team sports (there's a reason I'm in the job I am) so netball and its ilk was OUT.  You might hate the idea of flailing around in what is basically your PE kit in front of any other human beings whatsoever, so you can do it at home - for free, if need be - there are plenty of 'in front of the Telly/DVD/YouTube' schemes around. If you love the endorphin rush of aerobics or HIT, you'll be there every class.
You might need to try a new things, but when you hit on the thing you like, go; a lot.
Your 50 year old self is up ahead of you now, begging you to do it.

2) Start your pension.
I know, it's hard. I've paid it through difficult times when people were taking 2 years to pay up (that's a whole other blog) through to times when things are more comfortable. But START. If you're in your 20s...again, your middle aged self will sigh with relief knowing you've kicked off a lifetime's habit of setting future money aside.
No one has that proverbial, clichéd crystal ball - who'd have predicted plague, floods and these particular politics we're having right now? So all the more reason to get going, eh?

Both will help you work, rest and play better.
BOTH are insurance for your future self, and the people around that future self.

This is advice purely from my own experience across a quarter of a century. 
You don't have to take it of course. But in an uncertain world where there's such a lot we can't control, these two things we can. Don't stick your head in the sand!

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