At Work: Milo McLaughlin

Another two weeks have passed, so it’s At Work day once again here on The Friendly Anarchist. This time, I had the pleasure to talk to my friend and consigliere, Milo McLaughlin, about his adventures as a freelancer, pr0mising trial-and-error approaches to creative work, and the benefits of Buddhist chanting.

Hey Milo, welcome! First of all, is it true that your cat tends to steal your executive stair, leaving you with nothing but the cold, wooden kitchen chair?

(No comment!)

Milo and his cat

Damn, felines are tough! For the people who don’t know you yet: What is the kind of work that you do? How many areas of focus do you have?

Well, since taking voluntary redundancy in February (after ten years working in the Scottish civil service) I’ve been experimenting with building a creative business by working as a freelance copywriter for creative businesses and creating content for my blog, Clear-Minded Creative. I’ve also started doing Creative Clarity and Strategy Sessions with people who need help to achieve their creative goals, which I really enjoy doing.

This has only really been possible because I got a lump sum when I left my job which meant that I could comfortably survive for a year. I had already done some freelance work on the side which also made it less risky to leave ‘secure employment’, so when the opportunity came up I decided it was a good time to leave.

  • Create: It took me a while to get into the swing of things but I’m now in the habit of doing a solid chunk of creative work each day, whether it’s producing content for my clients, or for my blog and other outlets. This usually consists of writing but can also involve filming and editing if I’m creating a video, or working in InDesign and Photoshop for my Career Masterplan for Mad Geniuses series.
  • Connect: I try to spend 30 minutes to an hour answering or sending emails from clients, friends and blog readers (who usually are also friends!) and catching up with Twitter and Facebook. I’m not as focused or consistent as I could be with this, and sometimes take too long to respond to emails so that’s something I’m aiming to improve. I also love chatting with clients and friends all around the world on Skype or Google Plus Hangouts. I’m still amazed at how easy and cheap this is to do thanks to the wonders of technology.
  • Consume: I’m an insatiable reader so I’ll get lost down the rabbit hole of my Google Reader subscriptions and social media streams far too often, and I often sign up to online courses and then don’t get round to actioning the advice. I also love reading on the Kindle. I’d like to cut down the time I’m currently spending mindlessly consuming so I can increase the amount of time I’m mindfully creating – so I’m working on setting limits on my reading to make it more focused and purposeful.

Do you have any specific time at which you normally get up? Do you use an alarm clock or do you just sleep until you’re well-rested?

I’m naturally more of a night owl so I’ve had a few false (early) starts when it comes to establishing a specific wake up time – a few months back I set myself a morning routine challenge which failed miserably. Amazingly, once I eased up on myself and went for a more tempo giusto approach (as you often advise), I fell into a natural routine that works well for me.

I set my alarm for 7:30am which is around the time my wife wakes up. Instead of going back to sleep, I now make an effort to stay awake most mornings (it helps that the cat usually jumps on me wanting some cuddles). I usually check email and social media in bed for a while before getting up once my wife has gone to work.

This is so as not to get in her way whilst she’s getting ready as our flat is extremely small!

Do you have any routines?

As I’ve only been freelance since February, it’s taken quite a few months to fall into a steady routine and I think I’ve still got quite a way to go to perfect it.

As I said, once I wake up I tend to catch up social media and blogs for a bit because it takes me a while to wake up properly.

Then I will get up and have a cup of tea or coffee and some breakfast, and usually I’ll stick the computer on and get straight to work. Ideally I’ll keep the internet switched off for this if I am focusing solely on writing or editing, but sometimes I do need the internet for research.

I’m now getting in the habit of breaking up the day with exercise, whether it’s running outside or going to the gym (not drinking alcohol has helped with this). So I’ll try to work for 3 hours before and 3 hours after my daily exercise – unless I’ve got a very tight deadline to meet when I’ll probably work right through.

What do you think about rituals to find focus?

I don’t have a set ritual, but if I feel out of sorts or demotivated I’ve got a few ways to deal with it. Exercise is one of the best ways I’ve found to boost my mood and focus. I wasn’t a sporty type growing up so I might just commit to doing five minutes of yoga to begin with, and I’ll usually feel sufficiently invigorated after that to get outside for a run. The thought of strenuous exercise rarely appeals to me, but it always feels great once I’ve done it.

If I’m particularly tired or low on energy I’ll meditate for 20 minutes but whilst that sometimes give me more energy, it could go either way and I may just end up falling asleep!

I’m not religious but I do have a spiritual side, so some days I’ll say a short mantra to myself in the morning (usually in the shower) asking for the strength to do my creative work.

Sometimes I’ll follow it with a few minutes of Buddhist chanting. My mum converted to a specific school of Buddhism who chant ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ and she often speaks of the benefits of doing this regularly.  Again, I’m not keen on organised religion but I have found that a few minutes of this chanting lifts my mood and gives me renewed energy.

And when I’m writing or editing copy I’ll usually blast out some upbeat music. Cheesy 80’s pop is always good, as is decent electronica such as the brilliant Scottish band Errors.

Where do you work? What are the most important things in your work environment?

I’ve already mentioned that our living space is extremely small, with only a kitchen/living room, bedroom and bathroom. That means I don’t have a specific room for my work, but I use the kitchen table during the day and then a desk in the bedroom in the evening or at weekends. This is far from ideal and I’d really love to have my own office – but then our current mortgage is very affordable, which is definitely one of the reasons I was able to leave my job.

A clean and spacious desk/table is best for my mental state, but I usually have my MacBook, iPad (for reading PDFs and web content), & Moleskin notebook and pen at hand which isn’t exactly minimalist, and other clutter does build up from time to time!

Milo’s desk

What tools help you to get things done?

If I’m feeling fuzzy-headed or overwhelmed I’ll do some journalling. I currently use my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard and the iAWriter app. I love the lack of distractions with this set up and it’s ultra portable so I can write in bed, on the bus, or in a cafe without needing to carry a laptop.

I also use the Moleskin notebook to scribble various ideas and mini-mindmaps when I need some clarity. Simplenote is also one of my most-used apps for keeping track of random thoughts and ideas.

In terms of a GTD tools, I’ve tried almost all of them and prefer Omnifocus on the iPad by far. However I still mostly resort to scribbling down lists with pen and paper when it comes to day-to-day prioritising.

How many hours do you work on a normal day? Do you take pauses as they come or at specific and fixed times?

It varies, honestly. If I have a client deadline then I might end up working 10 hours (with breaks for lunch etc) but in all honesty it’s probably closer to 4 hours of solid creative work each day at the moment and 2 hours of more fiddly admin stuff. I’d like to increase that to 8/9 overall, but as mentioned I have the same problems with distractions as many other people!

I tend to take a break for lunch when I feel like I’ve achieved a reasonable amount, and to exercise. I sometimes play the guitar for a while, though the cat doesn’t like that much!

Do you use any timeboxing techniques (like a fixed agenda or the pomodoro technique)? Or do you prefer to work more impulsively, depending on the current state of things, task from your email inbox, and so on?

I do find the pomodoro technique helpful in avoiding ‘Parkinson’s Law’ and use it now and again when journalling or doing other writing. Turning off the internet is perhaps the greatest productivity hack I know though.

Finally, do you have anything else that you’d like to share concerning your work day?

Well at the moment it is definitely a work in progress. What I most like about being freelance is the flexibility, so whilst I do tend to stay at home most of the time, I can also go out and meet friends for lunch, go to the gym, or now and again to a client’s offices for a few hours or even the whole day.

I’m also very aware that I’m in an absolutely amazing position at the moment, and that my current freedom is dependent on my earning more money in the future (and spending less).

Whilst I’ve earnt enough from my freelancing so far to pay my mortgage and bills each month, my lump sum from my old work has meant I’ve not felt the pinch of not knowing where my next meal is coming from yet. I’m going to have to work a lot harder over the next few months to make this a sustainable lifestyle!

Thanks a lot for your time, Milo! And anybody of my readers looking for more creative clarity (and an interesting take on developing your very own career masterplan!), be sure to check out Milo’s free guides. (They are the real deal and come with no strings attached!)