The Freelancer Balancing Act Between Committed and Stressed

I’m so extra.

One of my bookmarks is an article on the six natural resources that’ll run out. I do mental exercises so my mind is prepared for the pain if ever I’m a victim of anaesthesia awareness.

I don’t plagiarize, but I’ll take an article I wrote my damn self and run it through Copyscape just to be sure.

So it’s no surprise that I make content writing way more stressful than it needs to be.

The job I’ve created for myself since graduating is straightforward. A startup says, “We’re a startup that makes buttons. Can you write an article about fall fashion trends?”

Cool. I bang out an article. They’re happy. They pay me.

This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to move on with my life.

But I get overcome with guilt and intense pride, even if it was ghostwritten. How did the blog post do? Did it do what you wanted it to do? What are your content goals?

I get that a blog article is high up on the marketing and sales funnel and won’t have a high conversion rate.

I know I did the job I was paid for, and thank you very much for paying me on time.

But I’m still curious:

Was it good for you?

So I follow-up. I make suggestions. I get fidgety. Like someone who got attached after one date, I have to keep checking their social media channels, their blog, to see what they’re up to content-wise.

How are you doing? How are you DOING? HOW ARE YOU DOING?

Give away too much and you’ll have a nervous breakdown

It’s a delicate balancing act though.

When you write for a larger company, they have a very clear role carved out for you as their freelancer.

“You write this, you submit it on this date, we pay you. We literally do not need your opinion about anything else we’re doing. There is someone whose job title is that specific sliver of advice you think you’re blessing us with.”

But with startups it’s different. In most instances, so long as you aren’t obnoxious about it, they welcome your suggestions. Not because they aren’t capable of figuring things out for themselves, but because they have no time to think about it. They’re trying to keep the lights on and convince people to give them money so they can stop stressing about keeping the lights on.

They can barely breathe, let alone think about a data-driven content strategy.

But here’s where the balancing act comes in. You end up giving away more than you should, and if you aren’t careful it leads to exhaustion, resentment, or even irritation on the part of the client who never asked for all this extra effort and now feels burdened by your overcommitment.

New freelancers walk a fine line between adding value and stressing for no pay when no one asked them to.

I think I’ve struck a balance, but it took some time.

Add value but demonstrate your worth with informational invoices

I’m not entirely opposed to free work, so long as it’s work that’s building value on top of a piece of paid work and the person you’re providing it for respects your time. But you have to communicate that it’s a complimentary offer very clearly.

The best way to do this is by sending informational invoices. If you throw in a brief summary they can use when they share the article on Facebook, include how much it would have cost and just apply a discount on the subtotal. Another option is to simply point out how much this would have been worth when you send it along.

No matter what, make your worth crystal clear, baby. And a pox on anyone who belittles you for doing that.

Above all, if it gets exhausting, remind yourself that this extra thought is not paid thought and you can take a break guilt-free. This is easier said than done: Freelancers have autonomy and control over their schedule, but most find it difficult to “turn off”.

For me, I think the easy answer is that I should be working full-time for one company. I take a lot of pride in my work, and I don’t like a set-it-and-forget-it approach even if it’s just a teensy, tiny project.

But then I’d have to work on someone else’s terms. I’d have to “be the brand”. I’d have to look presentable every day, and I’m quite comfortable with my ragamuffin freelancer look, thank you very much.

Also: Fuck office politics.

How To Increase Likes For Your Company’s Facebook Page

“Why should people care about my company’s Facebook page?”

Asking yourself this question while planning your Facebook marketing strategy is a surefire way to make the right decisions.

If you already have a buyer persona then you’re off to a good start since targeting the right people instead of screaming into the digital void is essential. But once you’ve got that, here’s what you can do to get that preferred audience to pay attention.

Create a Schedule and Post Consistently

People “like” a page because they expect that page to provide daily content. Posting consistently sets your page up as a source of regular, useful information. Many businesses fail to update their networks.

Running your company’s social media page seems easy until you realize just how much there is to do. I’m of the opinion that shorter blurbs are harder to write than longer blog posts. With a higher word count, you have more room to hide the crap. With social media, your mediocre sentences lie pathetic and naked in full view.

Throw in the fact that you have to source images that are both good and free, select appropriate hashtags without spamming users, plus come up with good ideas multiple times a day and you can understand why companies hire entire teams to manage their channels.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Choose consistency over frequency and slowly build as you have more great ideas to share.

Put Up Stuff People Actually Care About

There are a lot of terms for this – engaging, interactive, click-worthy – but all it really means is that your content should be things people care about. If you’re an insurance company, people don’t want six posts a day about how you’re the best insurance company in the country. Instead, relate it to things they care about in their life.

An article about the average amount car insurance goes up every month? Boring.

A list of all the things someone could buy with the money they save by switching to your car insurance? Interesting.

Want people to care even more? Put things in a format they have time to consume. Let’s say someone does want to know what they could buy with the money they save switching to your insurance plan. Despite their interest, they’re so busy that they tell themselves they’ll read the article after work. They’ll either completely forget about it or not bother looking for it.

To address this problem, share information in a digestible, visual format. A colourful chart or graphic is not only eye-catching, but it’s also easier to read in a rush.

Rep Your Facebook Page Everywhere Online

Wrote a blog post? At the end, encourage readers to like your Facebook page to read the latest content. Include links that allow readers to share your articles online. Include social plugins to your Facebook page on your website.

When you share your Facebook page on your personal network, be sure to do so with a piece of content that is interesting to your friends and family, so it’ll catch their attention as well.

Share Images Regularly

Someone casually scrolling through their Newsfeed is more likely to stop and stare at a bright photo than they are to stop and read a block of text. Find bright, interesting photos to share on your Facebook page so that people will either like the photo or stop to learn more. That could mean reading the caption or clicking on the accompanying link.

Hit The Invite Button

Don’t be shy – hit the invite button. You have a community of friends, family, colleagues, and more who have heard about your business and want to stay updated. They will also feel more compelled to like and share your posts. This kind of engagement can bolster your page’s importance and relevance and increase the number of people Facebook shows your page to. Even if most of the people in your personal network aren’t your target customers, they may know people who are. You want your company to be top of mind.

Spruce Up Your Actual Facebook Page

Don’t forget to put some time into making your actual Facebook page look appealing. Be sure to include:

  • A profile picture. A clear image of your logo is the best option
  • A cover photo. Choose a photo that is clear and inviting. Smiling customers or a nicely staged photo of your product works.
  • Choose the right dimensions. Avoid posting a distorted profile or cover photo by abiding by Facebook’s dimensions.
  • Fill out all the information. Provide company hours, contact information, company description, and more. This increases the usefulness and professionalism of your page.

Use Contests and Coupons to Encourage Likes

If you have some room in your budget, offer a prize or free gift card to a lucky person. All they have to do to enter the contest is share the post and like your page. If they’ve already liked your page, they share the post thereby spreading the word to other people who are also compelled to hit “like”.

You can also offer discounts or coupons exclusively through Facebook, so that people have an incentive to like and follow your page for regular updates.

With close to two billion users, marketing on Facebook is unavoidable. And once you get your feet wet with simply posting on your page, you can dive into the wealth of paid advertising options available on the social media site. Since so many people use the platform, Facebook allows businesses to specify their advertising audience based on preferences and demographics. In the meantime, simply optimizing your Facebook page and posting regularly is an effective way to get into the habit of small business digital marketing.

3 Big Content Writing Myths Spread By Other Writers

Myths have many purposes. They tell us how things came to be, and why they are the way they are. Myths give people a sense of belonging, and you better believe they’re entertaining.

It’s why I’m not surprised that there are so many myths about content writing spread by other writers.

Content marketing has been around for years, but it’s still the new kid on the block. So writers have to create stories about the purpose (or lack of purpose) of content writing and what it means to be a content writer versus a “real” writer.

If you’re considering a career in content writing, or you’re currently building one, let me tell you why you should totally dismiss these myths.

Myth #1: Content Writing Means Pumping Out a Lot of Trash Blog Posts

We don’t set fire to the romance genre just because of a few published pieces of fanfic, do we? No. So why drag content writing just because some people don’t understand the difference between frequency and consistency?

What do I mean by the difference between frequency and consistency? Consider the cases of these two made-up business owners, Bill and Sakina.

Bill hears that putting out regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your SEO ranking. So he hastily publishes a blog post every single day. These blog posts are poorly edited, redundant, and not very enjoyable to read. And chances are, he’s going to burn out after a week and give up. Bill prioritized frequency.

Sakina hears that producing regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your search engine ranking. Unlike Bill, Sakina takes her time. She thinks about what her customers often ask and writes quality blog posts that address those questions. She commits time to writing two articles each week. Because she didn’t overwhelm herself she can stick to this schedule and make sure they are well-written and relevant. Sakina prioritized consistency.

So what’s my point? Well, people can execute content marketing poorly, but that doesn’t mean there’s something inherently inferior about content marketing.

Myth #2: Content Writing is Hack Work

Literary, artistic, or professional work done on order usually according to formula and in conformity with commercial standards. (via Merriam-Webster)

The supposedly shameful parts of this definition are “on order” and “according to formula and in conformity”.

For starters, something done on order doesn’t reduce its status as “art”. Very few people would deny that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a marvellous piece of art. Yet Pope Julius II commissioned it from Michelangelo.

It may not have been through Upwork, but he still ordered it.

How about the literary side of things? If someone works a day job, writes their book in the evening, and then after a limited print run receives glowing reviews by literary critics, you better believe their publisher is going to “order” another book.

Now, a blog post isn’t equivalent to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but you get my point. Just because someone requests a piece of work, doesn’t mean your work isn’t valuable.

And what about this issue of conformity? Rather than launch into how even iconoclastic artists or writers have to respect certain norms (so their work can be relatively understood) let’s just leave it at this: Writing on a topic and including a call to action doesn’t mean you can’t be creative.

In fact, I’d argue that someone who can find a compelling way to tell stories about HVAC equipment is just as – if not more – creative than someone who can write about anything they please.

If you can keep people glued to articles about furnace repairs, you are doing more than hack work, my friend.

Myth #3: Content Writing is Fake Journalism

Right off the bat, I should say that content writing is not journalism for several reasons, so if you think this I do agree. But the people who lob this criticism aren’t looking for a debate on the philosophy of journalism. What they usually mean by this is: Content writing is unhelpful and untrustworthy.

To which I say this: Content writers write for potential customers and current customers. That is an audience of some very, very, very judgemental people. People who will not hesitate to leave comment like, “This article is irresponsible. You’ve lost my business” or “I was ready to make a purchase until I saw this” or “Why do you keep posting bullshit like this? Unfollowing”.

To avoid comments like this you have to produce stuff that’s useful, enjoyable, and trustworthy. The stats better be legit, that infographic better have something useful, and that article better not put someone to sleep. While a blog post may not go through the same layers of approval that a news article does, a content writer is still thinking about audience, angle, relevance, and readability.

Above all, branded content can still tell a good story. If you understand your brand, you know what sorts of stories your audience will enjoy. Allstate partnered with The Atlantic to launch The Renewal Project, a two-year editorial and marketing project publishing stories on social innovation in the U.S. Technically, this is content writing, but it reads more like journalism or storytelling.

Don’t Shy Away From a Career in Content Writing

Perhaps the biggest problem is the name: content writing. “Content” feels like a lazy word. Once you say content writing enough it starts to sound like you’re saying “stuff writing” or “thing writing”.

Over time, you’ll learn how to position yourself. For example, I call myself a “storyteller for startups” while networking because it rolls off the tongue and starts a conversation.

The important message here is that you can absolutely do relevant, useful, and creative work as a CONTENT writer.  

Featured image via Pexels

How Upwork Success Porn Fuels My Work Ethic

About once a month, I’ll have a day where I feel completely unexcited about my work.

Does the world really need another blog post about digital marketing? Am I undercharging? Will I get carpal tunnel before freelancing even makes a dent in my student loans?

Being in a funk is a waste of time. So when I have money, I’ll go to Caffé Demtre and get a waffle. When I’m broke (or feeling frugal) I’ll find some candy, put on a random TV show in the background, and spend an hour looking at what I call “Upwork Success Porn”.

What is Upwork Success Porn?

Top-rated profiles. High earning profiles. Profiles that say the freelancer worked a thousand hours. I love that shit. It gets me so motivated to work and sometimes, it gives me pointers on how to improve my own profile.

Upwork Success Porn-min
This is where the journey starts. Right on Upwork’s home page. (Source)

I go down a rabbit hole of profiles. I’ll click on a freelancer’s past clients and then see what other freelancers that client worked with and then see what other clients those freelancers worked with. It gets out of hand.

Successful Upwork Profiles-min
Danielle bringing in that money and kicking out those typos. (Source)

But doing this helps me in two ways.

One, I’m eager to get back to work, so I can get on their level.

Two, I’m motivated to find jobs on the platform. Upwork is no longer my primary source of work. I do like the platform and you can find great clients, but there are so many posts with asks like, “10,000 words for $20” that separating the wheat from the chaff is irritating and inefficient.

The few times I go on an Upwork pitching spree is when I’ve done some serious “Top Rated” profile creeping.

I’ve linked to everyone’s Upwork profiles underneath the screenshots. I’d be over the moon if you hired ME, but I’m a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due so may the best freelancer win.

I promise I don’t know any of these people. Hustle just recognizes hustle.

 

Upwork Success Porn Profile-min
Go on with your bad self, Philip! Get that money. (Source)
Enviable Upwork Profiles-min
Ashley hitting the $100K mark like it’s nothing. (Source)
Good Upwork Profiles-min
Fellow Canadian Ryan writing copy that converts. (Source)
Great Upwork Profiles-min
NICK C. MEANS BUSINESS! (Source)
Successful Profiles on Upwork-min
“God damn copy genius” Stefan. (Source)

It is officially time for me to get back to work.

I Often Tell Myself My Writing Sucks

I often tell myself my writing sucks.

Hear me out.

I regularly call myself out on my own bullshit whether it’s how I act towards my family or how much I’ve been slacking on a project.

Now, I can’t say for certain whether this habit has made me a better person. What it has done is made me a better writer and freelancer.

Not the best. Just better.

Before I’ve hit send on a blog post, I’ve already thought of half a dozen criticisms the client will have and you can bet your typing fingers that that list of six was whittled down from a list of sixty before I decided to shut the critical voices up and just hit “send”.

“This is boring.”

“There are a hundred other blog posts like this out there.”

“This entire article is too simple.”

“These sentences are too wordy.”

There is usually much more cursing involved.

With the exception of minor revisions, most clients have been happy, but this doesn’t make me any less critical. In fact, it makes me convinced that since I dodged the bullet this time I’m that much closer to the day I get verbally assassinated.

So what do I do?

I read. I read as much as possible about how to write better and how to come up with better ideas and what other content writers do.

Last night, I spent an hour reading about how to write better sentences. My most recent source of self-consciousness has been how basic my sentences seem. Or, on the other end of the spectrum – but just as cringe-worthy – is the fear that they sound too pretentious.

(Related, but unrelated: Last night, Douglas Preston of the Pendergast series writing duo Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child followed me back on Instagram while I was reading that article about writing better sentences. I wish I had been quick enough to get a screenshot of the banner notification, but I was too stunned.)

I am always improving and learning new skills because of this tendency to pick my work apart. It also helps me confirm when I’m doing things right. 

This habit does have its downsides. I spend much longer than I should on a project with a scope and budget that simply doesn’t justify it. I’ve even put off sending a simple email because I obsess over the tone.

Constructive criticism that mutates into analysis paralysis will do you absolutely no favours.

One thing that proved helpful over the last year is blogging. Committing to a certain number of blog posts pushes you to hit “publish”. It also serves as writing cardio that forces you to practice in a low-stakes environment where you don’t have to maniacally edit and proofread.

Another helpful habit has been remembering the purpose of a piece of writing:

  • Does the email respectfully and clearly get your message across? Yes? Stop wasting time and hit send. 
  • Does the 500 word article meet the project requirements? Yes? Proofread and hit send. 
  • Is your friend really going to screenshot this boring conversation about what time to meet up and share your typo with the world? No? Stop being a paranoid narcissist and hit send.

Here are a couple things I read and watched this weekend about improving your writing:

5 Ways to Write a Damn Good Sentence via Copyblogger

Declaring War on Bland: Copywriting as Fresh Literature via TEDx Talks

Do you have any recommendations for educational books, blogs, or videos? I’m always learning and I’d love to hear what’s helped you become a better writer, marketer, or business owner. Comment below 🙂

P.S. Don’t worry. I spend way more time gassing myself up, but that’s a blog post for another time.

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Featured image via Pexels

5 Ways I Improved My Freelance Writing Career (That Didn’t Involve Writing)

The best thing you can do to improve yourself as a writer is to write. Like Nike says, “Just do it!”

But over the last year of working from home, there have been a few non-writing related activities that have helped me become a better freelancer and grow my business.

Regularly Stretching

I suffer from intense pain in my right shoulder that, when left untreated, makes working at my computer for longer than 20 minutes unbearable.

Buying a new desk and chair simply wasn’t an option, so I obsessively started following stretching videos on YouTube and eating turmeric to reduce the inflammation.

By taking preventative measures like stretching, exercising, and sitting properly in your chair, you can reduce your chances of damaging your muscles.

Pain will get in the way of a lot of things and growing your business is one of them.

Doing Chores

Writers don’t just deal with writer’s block. Anxiety, self-doubt, stress, and more are all regular houseguests.

When these became a constant thorn in my productivity, I started breaking up my workday with manual chores. I’d work for fifteen minutes, fold a pile of clothes, work for another fifteen minutes, and then wash dishes.

It may sound like an unproductive, interrupted day of work, but it actually makes me more focused.

When my thoughts are racing and I can’t focus on the task at hand because I’m obsessing over something unrelated to the work, I can focus on what I’m doing knowing that at the end of the fifteen minutes I have some time for guilt-free stressing.

What makes it guilt-free? Two things.

One: the fact that it is scheduled time.

Two: the fact that I’m doing manual labour, which makes me feel productive. Since it’s impossible for me to do client work when my mind is elsewhere, I can wash a stack of dishes while stressing. (So long as I snap back to attention while washing the knives.)

Flipping Through a PHYSICAL Thesaurus

Before I started writing professionally, I thought I was one wordy motherfucker. Once I had to produce blog post after blog post I started rolling my eyes at the words I kept repeating.

Clients obviously wouldn’t notice this meta-pattern, but I saw the repetition between pieces.

If I find a word boring while writing I’ll quickly click over to an online thesaurus and look for alternatives. But as part of my general professional development, I’ll take the time to flip through my paperback thesaurus in the morning or before bed.

Pursuing a Specialization

Pursue designations or certifications if you can. Carving out a niche for your writing makes you extra valuable to clients who are desperate for a writer who can make their dense, uninviting topic enticing to readers.

I stumbled into writing content for tech start-ups, but I haven’t taken that fortunate entry point for granted. I’m aggressively reading as much as I can about the industry as well as looking for affordable coding for beginners resources to make myself more knowledgable.

Surrounding Myself With Other Writers

Go to networking events. Talk to friends who are also writers. And if you’re not a fan of networking or you don’t have a lot of friends who are going down the same career path, read the blogs and watch the videos of other freelancers.

I’m sociable, but I find networking exhausting and I always leave those events feeling low, so I’ve started to avoid them. My substitute has been using social media to create a digital network of people who inspire and influence me.

Writing and reading are both vital ways to improve your freelance writing career, but if you’re in the industry, you already knew that. Sometimes, activities totally unrelated to creating can help unlock your potential and boost your motivation.

Happy hustling!

Featured image via Pexels

A Quick Introduction to Buyer Personas

As a kid, I always ate my veggies before the meat and potatoes. In drama class, I insisted on learning the lines before looking for costumes.

Not because I’m disciplined, but because I like to enjoy my steak and my box full of fun outfits without a bunch of boring obligations. I’m still like this as an adult.

Currently, I’m trying to introduce some structure to my piecemeal knowledge of content strategy.

Enter Hubspot Academy.

Their blogs helped me a lot when I started freelance content writing and they have a great blog post that outlines how to create an effective content strategy. The very first item on their list of what to do? Create a buyer persona.

In this scenario, the chance to create a pretty content calendar in a colourful spreadsheet is my meat and potatoes. My vegetable is the buyer persona.

Making one of these doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me, but I like to do things right and the thought of creating an entire content strategy only to realize I’m targeting the wrong people is exhausting.

I mean, you gotta know whose attention you’re trying to get instead of shouting into a loudspeaker and hoping the right people don’t cover their ears.

This chore makes a lot of sense.

What’s a buyer persona?

A buyer persona identifies who your ideal customer is. Making one is a combination of creative writing and market research where you put together a profile of your ideal customer.

Hubspot helpfully outlines what your buyer persona should look like and what it should include:

  • Semi-fictional character (i.e. small business owner, talent acquisition specialist)
  • Description of a day in their life including everyday challenges
  • Demographic and biographic behaviour
  • Goals and aspirations
  • Pain points and obstacles
  • Preferred method of contact

You can find several buyer persona templates online.

So how do you get the information for your buyer persona?

The best way is to speak to existing customers.

And if you don’t yet have any customers to speak to, Trent over at Bright Ideas shares a method called “audience jacking” where you do a little sleuthing to analyze your competitor’s customers. Trent’s not playing around.

At present, this audience jacking method is what I’m going to focus on because I don’t have access to the content information of customers anywhere.

Down the road it’ll be interesting to take a look at how you develop customer surveys and which questions are important to ask.

Currently, I’m practicing by creating buyer personas for companies that I’ve written content for.

If it helps me come up with on-point blog ideas to present to them, that’s more writing projects.

And if they’re like, “That’s cute, but we have someone making these for us already” it’s just more practice for me.

Featured image via Pexels

From Student to Content Writer to (Hopefully) Content Strategist

It was only in my last year of university that I finally realized I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing.

Fuck being practical. I’d avoided pursuing English, writing, or marketing because like some kind of masochist I thought pursuing what I wanted was self-indulgent.

I eventually realized that I’d be happier writing take-out menus for crappy pay instead of earning six figures elsewhere so long as I was writing.

(This is a hypothetical. I have never earned six figures, so there’s a possibility I would have liked that better. But I digress.)

So there I was in my final year of International Studies at York University and I had come to three key conclusions:

  • I was not gonna be a diplomat
  • I hate bureaucracy, so there’s no way I was going to work in government despite the benefits and security (suuuuuuuure) and blah blah blah
  • A law school would “looooool” for days at my transcript

I didn’t really feel like writing a novel, so I explored content writing and sponsored content jobs. I started applying to stuff: no luck. But some noteworthy things happened that got me started:

  • A fantastic woman who worked in the office where I was a work/study told me to grow a spine (in more professional terms) and start putting my writing out there
  • I enrolled in a phenomenal professional development program at Ryerson University called Adapt that was geared towards helping university students acquire the skills they need for the workforce (i.e. coding, Excel)
  • I couldn’t get a job anywhere, even as an admin assistant, despite my over 5 years working in offices and call centres

So I went on Upwork, starting pitching to prospective clients, and thanks to the business writing skills I learned at Adapt improved my pitches and instantly saw a spike in my response rates.

A year later, I’ve significantly increased my freelance rates, but I’m ready for a transition. You see, I started off willing to take anything so long as the client seemed like they would respect my time and communicate effectively. My first gig? 800 word articles for $7 a pop.

But I’m far from stable and I have definitely hit a wall. Right now, I refuse to enroll in any graduate programs, certificate programs — anything with tuition!!! – until I have paid off my current student debt.

My mind may change, but right now the thought of paying for school feels stupid.

Now I’d like to have a better understanding of how to develop successful content strategies. I believe I have the intuition for it, but not the skill.

So last April was about landing any writing gig that would pay me. Now that some people are paying me, here’s the new goal:

BECOME THE MOST KICKASS CONTENT STRATEGIST POSSIBLE

How do I do that? Well, I’m not really sure. And I hate diving into things without a plan. I’m the type of person who looks up what things you’re allowed to bring in to Canada’s Wonderland before even packing a bottled water.

So I’m currently at the present stage:

  • Identify the skills required to be a fantastic content strategist
  • Gain a high level understanding of digital marketing and content strategy
  • Improve my writing and analytical skills
  • Figure out how colour schemes work because my Instagram game is weak and content is becoming more and more visual
  • Develop at least a basic understanding of the world of tech and how it intersects with content

Are you trying to develop your career in digital marketing and content strategy? I’m a firm believer that you learn a lot through conversation so please share any tips, comments, or resources below!

Featured image via Pexels

5 Unproductive Things Students Do During Exams (That Don’t Involve Netflix)

Student using ruler to plan out their productive study schedule.

By: Neya Abdi | @neyaabdi

Ah exam season. That time of year when students everywhere teach themselves a semester’s worth of material in two weeks. It’s a testament to laziness and resourcefulness all at the same time. But there are a few especially unproductive activities students participate in while studying for exams that don’t get them anywhere. This exam season, take a good look at some of the behaviours listed below, consider the solutions, and then cut them out!

1. Obsessively Calculating What Mark You Need To Pass

It makes sense to do this – once! If you had a less than admirable semester, and you are relying on the final to turn things around it makes sense to crunch the numbers quickly to figure out if it’s even worth showing up to the exam. But once you’ve received that confirmation, ditch the calculator. (Unless you’re studying for calculus or something.)

Solution: Why do students spend so much of their study time calculating their possible marks? It’s because when they do it the first time, they calculate the best possible scenario. For example a student may think, If I get 100% on the exam, I can get an 80% in the course. While it’s great to set your sights high, it can be counter-productive this late in the game. Once the sheer magnitude of the work you have to catch up on sinks in you will keep minimizing your expectations by intervals and turning to your calculator to see how low you can go.

Cut to the chase. If you’re in a tight marks situation like this, calculate the MINIMUM mark you need in order to pass the course and then forget the number crunching entirely. Dedicate the rest of your energy to studying. You’ve already got an idea of how much work you need to put in to pass and hopefully will study enough that you earn a higher grade than that.

2. Doing Something Else While a Textbook is Open and Convincing Yourself That That’s Studying

Since we’re on the topic of exams, here’s a quick test for you.

Which of the following is an effective way to study?

a) Texting your friends that you can’t come out to study and then texting them throughout the evening about how much you have to study (with a textbook nearby)

b) Refreshing Facebook every fifteen minutes to check how many people liked your status about how you’re just gonna drop out and open a dog petting shop (with your lecture slides minimized)

c) Meeting up with a classmate at Starbucks to make study notes, post a picture on Instagram, and then decide it’s too noisy in there and postpone

d) None of the above

Answer: d) None of the above

Ditch the picture-perfect notions of studying and do not fall into the trap of thinking you’re studying just because you didn’t go out.

Solution: If you know that you will spend twelve hours at home to study on Saturday only to focus for ten minutes each hour, then be realistic. Work rewards into your study routine, and enjoy ten minutes of scrolling through Instagram guilt-free. Even if it’s mindless, it’s scheduled in and is not eating into your study time.

3. Studying With Friends Before Obtaining a Basic Understanding of the Material

Students forming a study group.
Study groups can be useful, but be careful that they don’t become an excuse to socialize with open textbooks. (Image via Pexels)

Studying with classmates is a fantastic way to discuss the material so that it is learned instead of memorized. But studying in a group can be a disaster, especially with friends. It won’t feel like a disaster at first, because you’re having so much fun. But once it’s 9pm, and you’re all tired the panic will start to set in when you think of how little you’ve absorbed for your 8am exam.

Solution: Do not assign a disproportionate amount of your study prep to a meet-up. Familiarize yourself with readings and concepts beforehand. That way, you won’t feel the temptation to get distracted during the group study session. You’ll be eager to discuss what you’ve learned and have an intelligent conversation about the material.

Bonus solution: If you really want a study session where you actually learn the material as a group – for bio or history majors that are memorizing a lot of dates or Latin names – assign chapters and come up with an activity. It could be as simple as each person coming up with 20 questions for a specific topic. As a result, each individual becomes familiar with one area and the rest can quickly learn through a quiz bowl style study session.

4. Waiting Until You Feel Like Studying

Here’s the thing: you’re never gonna feel like studying. Studying sucks. Reading’s fantastic; absorbing materials on a deadline is a pain in the ass. If you don’t feel like studying, buying nicer supplies or toting your laptop to Starbucks won’t make you feel any more disciplined. Simply recognize that it’s gonna be hard work and remember the goals that put you on this path of academia in the first place.

Solution: Commit to making notes for fifteen minutes. Just fifteen. Tell yourself you can do whatever you want after fifteen minutes – go shopping, get drunk, watch a movie – and put your phone in a drawer. Guarantee you that after the first fifteen minutes are up you won’t care to get up. And if after an hour of work you start feeling restless again, make the same “I can do whatever I want in fifteen minutes” deal. This has helped me with cleaning, exercise, dull freelance assignments, and everything in between.

5. Missing Out On Sleep

Student sleeping after studying for exam.
Get some rest. Your brain and your body will thank you. (Image via Pexels)

We live in a society that admires exhaustion. How tired you are is an indication of how hard working you are and the number of coffees you throw back is a sign that you’re busy and have shit to do. But sleep is unbelievably valuable, and like many simple solutions people just don’t want to hear, it solves A LOT of problems.

Mild anxiety about all the studying you have to do? An earsplitting headache? Hell, feeling nauseous? These are all possibly exam-related symptoms that can be addressed by getting eight hours of sleep or fitting in a quick cat nap.

Solution: If you do not usually get eight hours of sleep, you’re likely the kind of person who will go all the way down to no hours of sleep during exam season. So implement a habit of getting those full eight hours at the beginning of the exam season, instead of staying up to watch TV or go out. That way it’s a habit when things really start to pick up towards the middle and the end of exam season.

Tip: If you have trouble falling asleep, try avoiding all screens (yes, that includes your phone) a half hour to an hour before you plan to go to sleep. Make some chamomile tea to get calm and drowsy, and read a book, preferably one not related to your studies.

Here’s to a healthy and productive exam season!

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Featured image via Pexels

 

Students Can Create a Budget In Less Than 10 Minutes

Student sits on bed and makes a budget on her laptop.

By: Neya Abdi | @neyaabdi 

Budgeting is the simplest proactive measure we can take to guarantee our financial security, but we don’t take it as seriously as we should.

A big reason for this is the lack of personal financial education in schools. Many of us simply aren’t taught how to handle our money by our parents. Unfortunately, our parents may not know what they’re doing either – the average Canadian has $21,348 in consumer debt, according to TransUnion. And about 56 percent of Canadians say they have less than $10,000 stored away in an emergency fund. Forty-four percent have less than $5,000 and 21 percent have less than a grand. Financial experts recommend having at least three months of expenses (the ideal is six months) tucked away to touch only in an emergency.

Making a budget doesn’t just allow you to save up for a trip; it allows you to save up for the unexpected as well. So why are a lot of us hesitant to create one?

It’s Not As Complicated As You Think

For people I’ve spoken to, the biggest reason they don’t make a budget is because they simply don’t know where to start. They don’t know whether they should be aggressively paying down their debt, stockpiling money to paying off their student loans, or living on only bread and water. So they abandon the process before they’ve even started. If you’re just starting out, here are two key pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t be extreme.
  2. Just get started.

Your budget is a flexible tool that you can adjust periodically to meet your financial changes. Create a budget that gives you room to buy the things you like and do what you enjoy. Your budget shouldn’t be a financial straitjacket. Prioritize so that you are giving up things you care less about in order to spend on the things that you enjoy.

On that note, just get started! Your first budget will not be perfect, and it will likely be a reflection of how idealistic and ambitious you are about saving money. Following a budget takes practice, so just start off simple.

Implement the 50/30/20 Rule to Quickly Make Your Budget

Uncertain about:

  • What to start saving for?
  • Whether you should tackle your debt first?
  • How much you should put towards discretionary expenses or “fun money”?

Start off with the 50/30/20 rule. It’s the budgeting rule of thumb. Only 50 percent of your income should be spent on needs (this includes rent, hydro, metropass), 30 percent on your wants, and 20 percent should go towards savings and debt repayment.

If you do not have to worry about rent because you live at home, then throw a couple of fixed “wants” in there like your phone bill. If you have the extra money, maybe start contributing a couple hundred dollars a month to your parents just to get into the habit of paying “rent”. But try not to consider your fortunate situation a free for all to allocate 80% towards wants instead of just 30%. You can even put some of that leftover money towards your savings.

It’s as simple as striking two lines across your paper and making three categories: Wants, Needs, Future. And then fill in the sectons accordingly. It’s a quick and simple process.

If you are spending too much on your needs, moving may not be an immediate option, so see where else you can shift your budget. The 50/30/20 rule serves as a no-brainer starting point that you can organically adjust to fit your personal situation.

Should I Pay Down My Debt or Build Up An Emergency Savings?

This depends on your current situation.

If you can only depend on yourself in case of an emergency (you can’t pay rent one month, you need a repair) work on building your emergency fund up first and once you have about three months, start chipping away at your debt.

If your basic needs are met and you don’t have to worry about your food or shelter, prioritize paying off your credit card debt. Interest rates on credit cards are very high and whatever interest you earn in a savings account will never outpace the money you lose paying interest on your credit card. Beat that down as soon as you can, and allocate a smaller portion towards savings.

Whichever option you choose make sure you ALWAYS MAKE YOUR CREDIT CARD MINIMUM PAYMENTS ON TIME!!! You can live with carrying a balance, but missing your minimum payments can very negatively impact your credit score.

Respect the Effort It Took To Make Your Money – You Earned It!

Setting aside a specific amount of money for eating out or shopping quickly teaches you the value of a dollar. You’ll quickly learn the price of that pre-made salad you casually buy and wonder whether it’s worth it when you can put a bit towards that dress you wanted to buy. And you’ll become much more aware of the hard work that went into earning that cash and be less willing to give it away.

To keep up with the latest articles about budgeting and personal finance, like our Facebook page or follow @todiscursive on Twitter & Instagram