Working Through is the fifth in a series of novels centering around a crowd of forty through seventy something artists from Utica, New York. In the latest story, struggling writer and first-time novelist Heather Toth and her fiance, musician Quin Sartini, land steady work in the arts, working for a woman who appears poised to launch as the next social media star. Working for Michelle Milford should be a dream, an opportunity for both artists to work in interdisciplinary arts, provide arts education, and earn steady income, all while becoming part of a little crowd that supports and encourages each other to do their best to serve others. But things do not often work out as they should…in the arts, at work…or in general.
Heather thought this type of thing would be in the past by the time she reached her fifties, and Quin neared seventy. She thought queen bees, the in-crowd vs. the outcasts, and most of all, bullying would be something they’d be helping grandchildren through, not dealing with themselves. But things are different when you’re an adult, and Heather does not need to take this type of treatment anymore. But what does that mean when you’re an adult?
Join Heather, Quin, Mindy, Brenda, Heidi, and the rest of the crowd from previous novels Lifting the Shadows, Chatting as Adalee, Mostly on the Internet, and Attracting Virtual Reality for a look at an issue often faced, but rarely talked about, among adults in the workplace.
Click here to order your copy from Amazon.
Jess Szabo is a writing teacher, novelist, and arts writer.. the owner and head writer here at Artist Cafe Utica. Her teaching work is done online, and includes students from across the country. Her arts writing and novel writing focus exclusively on the artist community in her adopted hometown of Utica, New York.
We all skipped the crowded offline parties last night, or at least we should have. Those of us who had to head back to work in the morning likely skipped the alcohol as well. This year, I’ve decided to continue this new tradition of skipping useless New Year’s Eve/Day traditions and forgo the typical resolutions too. Instead, I am setting goals.
The difference between a resolution and a goal is practicality, focus, and perspective. Resolutions are often unreachable. The whole “new year, new me” thing we all get tired of after the millionth corporation uses it in their advertising is a good example. Unless you’re going to fake your own death, flee to a place you’ve never been before, and create a new identity, you are not likely to be a completely different person at the end of the year than you are today. Resolutions are focused on self praise. They’re all about “Look at me! Hey everybody! Look what great I’m going to do! Be sure to cheer me on!” Goals are typically focused on parts of your life’s mission. Resolutions set us up to beat ourselves up. When we look back, we either “kept our resolution” or we “failed.” Goals allow for progress and changes as we’re led to different things.
If you would like to join me in setting goals instead of making resolutions this year, here is a pattern for creating strong goals.
Set specific goals.
Goals that are too vague become nothing more than a way to sidestep accountability for doing little to nothing. If I say I want “more clients” for my arts writing business, I get to congratulate myself and slack off as soon as one person sponsors a single post for $20 and then disappears. A more specific, stronger goal would be, “I want my freelance writing business to serve at least three clients each month.”
A strong goal requires a result you can measure in some way.
Setting goals you can’t measure is another way of letting yourself off much too easy. Deciding to “learn Italian and Greek” was my goal last year. I cannot speak either of those languages today, because I did not set a specific goal. Technically, I did meet the stated goal, because I did learn a few words in Italian, and I learned a little bit about how to study Greek. But that was not what I meant when I set that goal, and we all know it. A firmer goal is, “Be able to watch an episode of a tv show in Italian and understand most of it by the end of the year and record a video or audio file of myself speaking Italian for ten minutes.” or “Be able to order my food in Greek by the end of the year.” I can measure those. I either understand the tv show, or I have to turn on the English subtitles. I will make it through a ten minute talk or I won’t. I’ll either have a nice chat with the people at the Greek restaurant and get my food, or they’ll have to ask me to switch to English.
Goals that are not attainable set you up for failure.
While the first two measures are designed to prevent us being too easy on ourselves, this one stops us from being too hard on ourselves. It would be perfectly reasonable for me to set a goal of singing in front of an audience again by the end of 2021. I started singing country and pop songs when I was three years old. I wanted to be a professional singer for my entire childhood, and have loved singing ever since. Most people who hear me sing tell me I have a good voice. But my voice is not great, and I haven’t really sung unless it was in a deliberately silly voice for a joke in about five years. Setting a goal of making my own album, having someone hire me to sing for two hours at my own concert, or singing an opera aria when I have a Blues, Country, and Pop voice and no training would only set me up for guaranteed failure.
Make sure you actually want or need to reach the goal.
Setting goals to do things you neither need nor want to do is another way to set yourself up for failure. It may sound good on social media to announce you’re going to gain or lose weight this year, but if you’re healthy and perfectly content with your body the way that it is, you’ll lose focus the minute all the encouraging comments fade away. In years past, I’ve been pressured to learn how to drive. It is something I can’t do that most adults can, but I would have no use for the knowledge of how to drive a car. Eye doctors tell me I have no depth perception, and both eye doctors and a retired police officer have told me this would make driving unsafe for me. There would be no need to learn to do something only to be reminded I’m medically restricted from it when I go to take the driving test. I would wind up with a learner’s permit, driving someone else around empty parking lots.
There should be some sort of time limit.
Putting time limits on goals helps maintain focus and motivation to work toward the goal. “By the end of 2021, I want to be able to record myself speaking Italian and Greek for five minutes,” is a goal with a time limit. I am likely to work toward those goals, knowing I don’t have forever to meet them. “I’d like to be able to speak Italian and Greek for ten minutes,” is a strong goal in terms of being measurable, but adding a time limit prevents me from putting off the work needed to achieve it.
Goals that can be broken down into smaller goals, or steps, are much more likely to be reached.
My goal, “I would like to have three clients per month in 2021,” is specific, measurable, attainable, something I want to do, and limited by time. Business blogs use the acronym SMART for “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely” to describe these guidelines. But I still run a strong risk of sitting around waiting for those clients to appear each month. My chances of success are much better if I break that down into, “Contact five potential clients each week,” or “complete a side hustle to raise the money to buy advertising by the end of the first week of each month.”
Remember Proverbs 16:3
The verse reads, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans.” (NIV). This does not mean all of your goals have to be directly related to church, and it certainly doesn’t mean you need to make a list of goals that sound like they came out of a bad, preachy movie. It means to pray as you are setting your goals, and to pray throughout the year, to make sure you are setting and going after goals in keeping with God’s plan for you. We all have a different mission here on earth. We are all made unique. A great goal for your friend, or your daughter, or your spouse, or the guy you sit next to on the bus to work may not be a relevant goal for your life. And even those of us who start out with righteous, relevant goals need to remain reminded that no matter what your goal, it is never okay to reach it through cheating, stealing, lying, or causing deliberate harm to other people.
Quarantine restrictions may be slowly lifting over the coming year, but Covid-19 is still a serious danger, and we will not be back to normal for several months. While nearly all aspects of our lives will continue to be impacted in some way, this offers a special challenge to anyone who planned on taking classes or lessons during this time. Parents of school aged children and on-campus college students know this all too well, as routines they’ve relied on for generations must suddenly be altered due to the pandemic.
Adults taking classes as “off-campus” students, online students, and those needing to take a course or two for work may not experience the upheaval that more traditional, full-time students go through, but studying is going to be a challenge for everyone for a while. Here are just a few ways to make the best of the situation.
These tecniques can also be used to teach yourself a new skill at home.
Take health precautions seriously.
Being sick of the words “social distancing” is completely understandable. But the idea behind it is important. Avoid crowding together with classmates who do not currently live in your household if you are taking an in-person class or attending a required offline meeting for an online class. Keep the seats spread out to avoid sharing germs. Wear a mask when you must be near classmates. Wash your hands a few extra times. If you are teaching yourself something, and you need to run to the bookstore to purchase something, wait for other people to finish looking at the books or other materials before moving into the space.
Refusing to allow space between people, pulling off your mask as soon as you get past the front door, and mocking the santizing stations or signs reminding you to wash your hands is not a political statement any more than pulling off your shirt and shoes inside a store, choosing your food at a buffet with bare hands, or refusing to comb or brush your hair, take showers, and brush or soak your teeth is a political statement. It’s just a way to spread around potentially deadly germs.
Set up a study space for online courses or self-directed learning.
Ideally, you have a space you can set aside as your school area. If you do have a den, office, or even an especially spacious dining room or living room, set up a space that is just for school. Arrange a desk or table, computer, chair, and basic office supplies to duplicate an office or classroom space. Those who live in smaller homes, or whose study space is taken up by kids, roommates, or spouses who have already moved their work or school online, can choose a space used for other purposes, and set it up as a temporary school space with markers. You might select your chair at the kitchen table, but have a cup full of pens or a special notebook or coffee mug that comes out only when that space is your at- home school. Make it a rule, both for yourself and anyone else in the home that this item or set of items means school, workshop, or study time. When your thumb drive is in the laptop, your school mug, or your school notebook is on the table, or your backpack is at your feet, you are in school, or having study time.
Make a schedule.
The popular image of studying (or working) from home is of a person in lounge wear stretched across the couch with their computer in their lap. The implication is that you can just pull out your electronics and “do school” at any moment. Perhaps some people can. Most people would find it difficult to focus.
Most online or self-directed learners find it easier to concentrate, get tasks done, and keep track of deadlines if they make themselves a schedule similar to the one they would have if they were going to class offline. The flexibility lies not in the freedom from a schedule, but in the freedom to create your own schedule.
Don’t forget breaks. If you were in a classroom or at work in a conference room for a workshop, you would have a lunch break. Make sure you have one at home too. Taking shorter breaks throughout the day can also help with focus and motivation.
Plan your tasks by starting with the final project and the due date, breaking down the tasks, and assigning a certain number of tasks each day.
Suppose you are taking an online class in setting up your arts career as a small business. For the first week, you will need to create and write a business plan. The weeks run from Monday to Monday, and the assignment is going to take you eight steps to complete. You will want to complete the two simplest steps in one day, and schedule each of the others one per day, with the final step done right before you hand the work in.
Duplicate this same process for self-directed learning. If you are teaching yourself a language, set a weekly goal, and then break that goal down by the day. Learning 100 new vocabulary words in a week may be impossible if you try to learn them all on Saturday evening. But if you break that down to 15 words per day, you will increase your vocabulary by 105 words in that same amount of time, and it is much less daunting.
Schedule a day for revisions, rewrites, and other issues.
When breaking an assignment down into steps, make sure the final step is going over your work and doing any revisions you need to do before you hand the work in. While you do want to give yourself the full amount of allotted time to complete online learning projects, you don’t want to find yourself scrambling to complete work because you scheduled too much at the last minute.
If the learning is self-directed, schedule some time for things to go wrong, or to be harder than you expected. Plan for time for that step you just couldn’t get down, or that material you just haven’t yet learned. It will happen, and it’s much more productive to plan for it than to beat yourself up and declare your studies a failure.
Keep your documents organized.
On your computer desktop, make a folder for your course or workshop. Inside that folder, make one subfolder for assignments or projects you are working on, one for submitted work that has not been graded or evaluated, and a third for graded or past work. Create another folder for notes and saved resources. If your course requires more documents or projects, make folders for those too. Folders on your desktop do not waste paper, cost money, or do anything else except help keep you organized. It’s better to have too many than too few, and find yourself frantically hunting around for that paper that needs to be submitted tonight.
Remember that academic and professional integrity rules still apply to online courses.
Even those who would never think of actually cheating may be tempted to bend the other rules of academic integrity in order to get by in an online course. After all, the instructor will never know that you’re not really that sick when you send them an excuse and ask for an extension. They won’t know that your personal issue isn’t truly preventing you from completing the work of the course if you “open up” to them with the secret hope they go easy on you when they hear your story. Except that they will. Online instructors are well aware of the internet age versions of “the dog ate my homework,” and of the pity play. It likely won’t work, and even if you should happen across an instructor who is guilible, distracted, or just plain worn out enough to take it, trying to manipulate your way into better grades is still wrong.
Get dressed for school or work.
Some people can concentrate well in their pajamas. Most need to at least get dressed in order to concentrate. There’s no need to dress in professional business attire, unless you’re going straight from your class or training to a Zoom meeting that would require such clothing if it were offline. But you may want to wear your normal business casual to casual workplace clothing. At least put on the clothes you would wear if it were a weekend day and you were going to meet friends for coffee. It may seem like an added hassle, but for most people, it aids in concentration and focus….and leaves you prepared for that unexpected moment when what you thought was a text chat with the boss or instructor turns out to be a video call.
Take advantage of some of the perks of studying from home.
Having a place, the materials you need to learn, and the people around you respecting the fact that you are “in school” or “in training,” just as if you were in a classroom or conference area is important. But you don’t have to duplicate every detail. You would probably not get up for extra snacks or drinks three times in a training session at work, but if you’re doing the training by yourself at home, with nobody else waiting for you in a video or text chat meeting, don’t worry about it. Go ahead and play loud music, or watch tv while doing tedious tasks if it helps you focus.
Make sure the day has a beginning and an end.
One of the biggest issues with training or studying from home is the feeling that because “home” and “school” are the same physical space, you are always obligated to be present in both at once. You decide to just go ahead and do that last lesson over dinner, or start your lesson while you have your coffee, before breakfast. This can be helpful during a rushed day, or if something unexpected happens, but making it a habit will only make it seem like you never came home from training or school. Make sure your training or class time has a definite end each day.
While the news about Covid-19 vaccines offers hope, and we know we will someday be back to only taking classes, seminars, and other training from home if we want to, self-directed, remote learning is going to be necessary for several more months, as the vaccine will need time to be distributed and work through the population. But remote, self-directed, online learning can be done, and done well once productive patterns become habits.