Has the pandemic taken a toll on my work, my mental health, my productivity?
In a nutshell, yes.
Since early March, my content has been on pause. Before that, I was steadily growing a weekly newsletter called The Pragmatic SEO with hands-on resources for SEOs, entrepreneurs and anyone who wants to learn about the topic. I was preparing new content and tweeting like there was no tomorrow. But then the fear of maybe actually not having a tomorrow took over and I froze.
I was, and still am, very proud of my newsletter. It brought me more visibility and a sense of accomplishment each week. With the COVID-19 pandemic, I put it on hold. At first, I thought I would be for a couple of weeks but it turned out to last way more than that.
The main reason I put it on hold is the same one we read over and over again on social media: how can I keep communicating around this topic when the world is suffering? Same goes with the current #BlackLivesMatter movement. What should I say or write when chaos and uncomprehension are upon all of us?
Sidenote: I you would have told me 10 years ago we would have a global pandemic in 2020, I might have believed you. If you told me we would still be fighting racism, I would not have believed you
I can’t say I have an answer to that, other than life goes on and so does my clients’. With changes, modifications in our relationships and ways of thinking, but it does go on. And so should I.
I took some time away from publishing to do some updates on my website, find new clients and, broadly speaking, get my shit together. Not that I particularly succeeded, but hey, progress was made.
So what are we to expect from now on?
The Pragmatic SEO will be back, with an updated layout and, on my side, a better organisation
Expect “traditional” blog posts. I have a few ideas of topics I want to explore and SEO tests I want to conduct.
A French version of the website is coming. Half of my clients are French-speaking, it’s time I start communicating with my French-speaking audience a bit more.
2020 is definitely a strange year, a change year. I try to navigate through it the best way I can, providing quality SEO services to my clients, growing my business, figuring out new plans while staying on track. I still haven’t made my sourdough starter (it’s long due), but I developed a new cookie recipe, so I guess it’s a win, right?
🍪 And since you did not ask for it, here’s the recipe:
As freelancers, we have to be know how to sell our skills and personality. Most of us have a website or an about.me page where we explain briefly who we are and what we do for our clients. We have social media profiles on every platform, all promoting our personal brand in a way or another. But there comes a time in your freelancing career, where selfies at the beach or cropped group photos don’t represent your personal brand enough anymore. A time where you might want to be more public about your work, speak at a conference, write an ebook or start a course. In short, a time where your face will appear more often on the internet, and you might want some professional shots of yourself instead of your old portraits from the university.
I recently did my first professional photoshoot for work, and wanted to share the whole process I went through.
Time needed: 14 days.
8 steps guide to a freelancer’s professional photoshoot
As with any project, you should first define why exactly you are doing it. For me, I wrote down where I wanted to take my freelancing career and what goals I had for the next 2-3 years.
In a nutshell, I want to speak at conferences, take on long-term projects that really appeal to me and stick to my values, and share my knowledge by creating a few online courses. As you can see, some goals will require some pictures of myself for communication purposes.
In the case of conferences, it’s likely the communication won’t be done by me, so I won’t have much control over what image of me is being shared around the internet. I figured I might as well have a quality media kit to give away instead of having teams scrape pixelized versions of my old profile pictures.
I also believe that the key element of differentiation between 2 freelances with equal skills is their personalities, and what better way to show your personality than with a personal website with high-quality pictures of yourself?
Okay, now you know why you want to spend a couple of awkward hours with a huge lens pointing at you, let’s get move on to my next point: money.
2. Define your budget
Your freelance activity is a business, and you are going to invest in your communication. As with any business project, you should be budgeting your photoshoot wisely, as prices for photographers can vary a lot.
From my experience, I knew I wanted to use those pictures for 2 to 3 years. That’s how old my previous portraits are, that were kindly taken by a colleague in a coffee shop near our workplace. Given my current communication expenses – mainly consisting of this website, costing around 50 euros per year, and given my current earnings, I knew I could spend up to 200 euros comfortably for a photoshoot.
Now, that might seem a lot to you, or really not enough. As I said, prices vary a lot for photoshoots. You can easily have a beautiful set of portraits done by a skilled friend with a smartphone in a park, or head to a famous photo studio in Paris. I suggest looking a how much you can afford first, and then find a photographer in your budget.
3. Create a mood board
If I tell you to think of a nice portrait of yourself, you probably already have a very precise idea in your mind. Perhaps it’s a combination of photos, locations, and people you like.
What clothes are you wearing? Are you standing or sitting? Are you working? Do you have something in your hands? Are you eating or drinking something? Are you at a big or small table? Are you inside or outside? Are you smiling, laughing, or being serious? Are you alone or are there other people? Are you at home or in a public area? What colours do you see?
These are elements your photographer will need to know to make sure he or she gives you the result you expect, and it might be complicated to express in an email the idea you have in mind. That’s why you should create a mood board.
If you are not familiar with the concept, a mood board is essentially a collection of pictures, illustrations and colour palettes that reflect the ambience, the vibe of the result you want to achieve.
At first, I gathered pictures that resembled the result I was aiming for on Pinterest. I found it was the quickest way for me to build an easily shareable image collection, but you can use whatever tool suits you best. What I liked also about Pinterest is that they will suggest images related to the ones you already set up in your board, and you can add your own ones you found elsewhere on the internet also.
For extra clarity on my expectations, I split my board into two parts: Poses and Locations. I knew exactly what kind of attitude I wanted to show and the type of environment I wanted to be in. A lot of my inspiration came from Emma Gannon’s main photo on her website, where she seems to be in a cosy bar with a bright yellow jacket. I really loved the idea of a cosy place with a bright colour popping out. I am also very productive and happy in hipster coffee shops, so that’s the kind of place I wanted people to see me in.
With that in hand, your photographer should be able to understand your vision.
4. Find a photographer
I travel a lot and change home every couple of months, so I knew I couldn’t ask around for a photographer, I had to find one from scratch. The good news is we have the internet and finding someone to take pictures of you is not very complicated if you have Google and Instagram.
While you are searching for the perfect photographer, keep in mind the style of pictures you want. You can’t expect good indoor portraits from someone specialized in nature photography. Have a look at their previous projects and their style, and choose someone you resonate with on an artistic level.
I started by searching by location, in this case, Vilnius, Lithuania. I mainly looked for fashion-related posts as I knew I needed a photographer used to working one-on-one with women. Sometimes the posts were made by the photographer him or herself, sometimes by the model, who usually tags the photographer somewhere in the caption. If the people I found had a website or portfolio, I would also check them out.
I contacted a few directly by DM, explaining clearly what I was searching for.
I actually found my photographer on Facebook, despite the fact we both rarely spend any time of this platform. It turns out Facebook search works quite well and I was able to find at least two interesting photographers there. Since their pages are often linked to their Instagram profiles, it was easy for me to check out their work, websites and contact them through Messenger.
I never had the opportunity to be the one hiring for a job, so I tried posting a job on Upwork for this project. I found a few interesting people, mainly art students searching for side gigs. Even if the people I found there were interesting, I didn’t move forward with them and found the process of posting a job quite tedious.
I’m really not sure Google is the right place to find a photographer. It will depend a lot on your location and you can’t be sure high-ranked photographers will be the best fit for you. In any case, a quick search is always useful so you might as well give it a go.
What should you ask them?
Here is the message I sent to photographers I was interested in:
Hi, I am a digital marketing freelancer and I travel full-time around Europe. I am spending the summer in Vilnius and I am searching for someone to take photos of me for my professional website. Would you be interested by this kind of project? Alizée
Who was my photographer?
I ended up working with a talented young photographer from Vilnius, Lithuania: Elvinas Dalala. We met for a first contact a couple of weeks before the shoot and he was very attentive to what I wanted from the photo shoot. During the photo session, he was super professional and kind, helping me relax and look my best. If you are searching for a photographer in Vilnius or a photographer in Switzerland (he travels often there), I couldn’t recommend Elvinas more!
When you established your mood board, you probably already had a few locations in mind. In my case, I knew I wanted to be in “my natural environment”, somewhere I feel at ease and where I like working.
For me, that meant no parks, beaches, office spaces, no super cliché digital nomad places you see in news articles. By the way, do people still believe you can work with your expensive laptop from a beach?! Not to mention the sun reflection in the screen, the lack of wifi and the dangerous sand that can ruin your machine…
I love working from home, but also from coffee shops. I find I am much more productive with a good coffee and the surrounding buzz of a good coffee place, so that’s where I wanted to be photographed.
I started looking for locations right after my first meeting with the photographer. I googled coffee shops around me, checked out their photos and, if the place wasn’t too far away, took a walk there. I met with one owner in person, to whom I asked what was their less busy moment in the week and if they would accept a small 2-hour photoshoot in their establishment. The response was positive.
In the following days, I made a list on Google Maps of places I liked, sorted them by preference and contacted them by phone or on their Facebook page one after the other.
Here is the message I sent to coffee places I was interested in:
Hi, I’m a French freelancer in Vilnius for a few months, and I’d like to come next Tuesday morning to take some professional photos for my website. It would be just myself and a photographer. Would you agree for us to come a take a few shots?
Side note: Tuesdays are usually the less busy day of the week for local businesses, and mornings between 10 am and 12 pm are also quite calm for coffee shops.
I would suggest adding the following information in your message:
Why you want to have pictures taken, what is the nature of the photoshoot
Where these pictures will go
When you want to come over
How long it will last
How many people will there be
Also, always double-check with the person in charge once you arrive at the location. In my case, we always had a quick chat with the barista to make sure we weren’t causing any trouble, and of course, we always ordered coffee for both the photographer and I. A good latte art makes a great prop too!
6. gather your props
Having a few familiar objects to play around with and give dimension to your shots is a great idea. You will feel more at ease surrounded by “your stuff” and it will give the photographer some ideas to work with.
Here is the complete list of the props I took with me:
Blue Moleskine notebook
Beige notebook (I really like notebooks)
MacBook Pro 15″ because that’s what I work with, I have a case on it for extra safety at airports security that I took off obviously
Black Magic Mouse 2
A nice coaster I have and use every day for my coffee mug
A leather pencil case
Pens, lots of pens with different textures and colours
A hardcover book
Bose QC 35 headphones
Swell water bottle
Second pair of glasses
A pair of sunglasses
We ended up not using most of the props I brought, but I was glad to have them with me just in case. I also brought a second outfit and some accessories like a scarf and jewellery.
7. Be at your very best
Of course, you want to look your best on the day of the photoshoot. Preparation can vary from one person to another, but to give you an idea, here are the different things I did to prepare.
Hair and makeup plan
I planned my makeup and hair ahead of time and tried a few options at home before going to the shoot.
Here is what I planned:
Nails: simple manicure with a simple light nude pink shade
Hair: washed on the morning of the shoot, then blowdried and lightly straightened
Makeup: light and natural, yet concealing my blemishes
I also took with me my hairbrush and bobby pins, my lipstick for on-site retouches, some chapstick and concealer.
What I did before the shoot
3 days before:
Do my nails
Pluck my eyebrows
Iron my clothes
Get to bed early
Drink a lot of water and no alcohol
Pre-order the Uber to get me to the photoshoot location
The day before:
Clean all the accessories with a microfiber cloth (especially screens)
Prepare the bag with all I need for the photoshoot
8. The day of the shoot
R-E-L-A-X. If you are like me, the idea of having someone focused on you for a few hours is highly stressful. Being the centre of attention is not easy and I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror figuring out poses. I suggest checking out Sorelle Amore’s videos of posing in photography. Have a chat with your photographer beforehand about your fears and insecurities. Be transparent with him/her about that elbow you think looks wierd or that little tummy everone finds cute but you hate in photos. You might also find you have a favourite profile and that your hands are such an asset for your portraits!
If your photographer is anything like mine, he/she will start by taking a few random shots to get the lighting right and to get you comfortable in your new model career. Have fun with the poses and situations, keep in mind a checklist of the shots you want, and ask for feedback. It really gets on my nerves when people say “Just be yourself“, but in that case, it’s true. Work on your laptop, tell an anecdote, have a laugh, take a sip of coffee and write something in your notebook, grab a book, look outside, and enjoy life!
I would also suggest having a quick hair and makeup check-up once in a while as moving around can mess things up.
My photoshoot lasted 2 hours and I was exhausted at the end. Turns out being self-conscious is quite demanding in terms of energy levels!
9. After the shoot
A few days after the shoot you should get your first edits from your photographer. We had settled with my photographer that he would send me a few different versions of the edits for 5-10 photos so I could tell him which kind of edit I preferred. I also made a selection of the shots I preferred – there were over 300 pictures taken! He then edited the shots I had selected and I paid him.
The editing process can vary depending on the photographer. I suggest discussing the terms of the editing process with him/her beforehand to avoid too much back and forth.
10. Share your pictures to the world!
Now you have tens of beautiful pictures of yourself, it’s time to share them! Update your profile pictures on social media, update your website, and post in the comments on how the process went for you!
New Year wishes are daunting. This ancient tradition everyone expects but no one wants to follow, each year, just as you are in the rush for the holidays, running errands to find presents for everyone, digging up this old turkey recipe you left in a cupboard, cleaning the house for all the guests that will come over and once again walking barefooted on this Christmas tree needle on the floor (ouch!).
Yet, as a responsible adult, and perhaps also as a professional, you are expected to draft new year wishes for your contacts, friends, family, and so on. Last year’s resolution was to anticipate this task, for once, but it didn’t work, did it?
That’s how I felt all day. I started preparing my new year wishes for all my professional contacts mid-December. I drafted tens of personalized messages on a spreadsheet, listing all the contacts I should send my wishes to, the preferred medium on which we communicate (mail, What’s App, etc.) and the message. I naively thought I’d be able to send everything on January 1st. Turns out the annual hangover didn’t let me get off the couch.
I procrastinated until today, January 7th, first Monday of the year. I spent all afternoon sending emails, answering emails, and copy/pasting thoughtful notes. It was not done on January 1st, but it’s done. That must count for a couple of adulting points, right?
This Saturday will mark my first unemployment birthday. Well, my first “not-working-full-time-for-someone-else” birthday to be honest, because it’s not like I have been slacking for the past year, on the contrary.
So here is everything I loved about my full-time job, followed by all I hated about it, in no particular order.
Having a fixed amount of money on my bank account each month. What a luxury! Knowing you will get paid even if you didn’t perform as well this month as the previous one feels very reassuring.
My colleagues and our inside jokes, our little lunch routines too. I worked with extraordinary people who always supported me and helped me grow both as a human and as a professional.
The Friday free breakfasts and the free coffee. Each last Friday of the month we had a ginormous breakfast to enjoy, organised by our office manager. Those days, things went slowly, people stopped to chat and shared good food and a sweet moment, away from the stress of the job, even if most of the conversations were work-related anyway.
Friday afternoons. Yeah, you guessed it, Fridays were a special day for us. On Friday afternoons, we would have workshops organised by some team members. Most of the time, it would consist of a presentation about a specific topic related to digital marketing, or sometimes a discussion about a new design for a website. In any case, those were long moments dedicated to learning and sharing good practices, and I believe they were the reason why this particular team performed well.
The daily passionate discussions with like-minded experts. Related to the whole learning and knowledge sharing topic, having people super excited about their job and happy to share their knowledge daily meant a lot to me.
Teaching my interns about this ins and outs of the job, still with a strong sense of knowledge transmission. I had a great time sharing my work with my interns and witnessing their progress each day. Luckily, I still have great relationships with them, and I’m proud I was able to play a part in their training.
Being encouraged to innovate every day by my manager. In my team, we had room to try out new things and discover new ways of doing digital marketing, and I think this is very precious in any organisation.
I could go on, but those are the main things that made me wake up every morning. As you can see, they are very much related to the people I worked with, and in case I didn’t stress this enough, they were the reason I stayed working there for two years.
Now for the fun part, let’s move on to all the things I hated…
Not being able to earn more with more work. Even if I put in extra hours and outperformed, I couldn’t make more money. Well, of course, I would have to wait for my annual review to try and negotiate some extra income with my manager, who by the way didn’t have much of a say in this. In the end, pay raises when they were approved of were very low in this company and in no foreseeable future could I have earned substantially more.
Not being able to save money because I lived in an expensive city. Mind you I had a decent salary, but I was always on a budget. That’s one of the main reasons that pushed me to change my lifestyle. With a decent income in Paris, living with my boyfriend in a 28m2 apartment, paying out my student loan (which was quite low compared to what some close friends had to pay each month), without going out, no bars, no nightclub, the occasional pizza delivery, no movies, very rare drinks with colleagues after work, no smoking and a lot of home-cooking, I barely saved any money. After a year and a half of work and the occasional weekend at my parents, I wanted to go on vacation with my boyfriend, something nice and relaxing but not extravagant. We took a 10-day vacation in a hotel in Greece, at the very end of September, just before they closed for the winter. I paid for this vacation with money I had made on weekends from my freelance gigs, not from my 9-to-5 job. That was a wake-up call for me. This life was not sustainable long-term.
The politics of work and the tens of hours spent debating on someone’s behaviour at the coffee machine. The daily gossip and the fuss around minor events that happened around the office take away a lot of time in the day and don’t benefit anyone.
Having to shamingly ask for vacation days months ahead of time, feeling judged if you’re taking them when it’s not right for the company and stressing about whether or not they will be accepted. Also, not feeling allowed to take a day off without notice because you are unwell. You could go to the doctor to have a day off, but in France, if the doctor says you can’t work for three days or less, you simply don’t get paid. So if you need a day to get over the first day of your period, you better have a very understanding manager and thought of taking your laptop home beforehand to work from home. And be sure to be marked as “available” on Skype all day to avoid any criticism from co-workers once you get back. That little green dot has a lot of power.
Office hours. I am not a morning person, never was and never will be. After months of working for myself, I discovered my productive hours are 9.30 am to 1.30 pm and 5 pm to 8 pm. I am useless after lunch, and won’t get anything useful done no matter how hard I try. But I wouldn’t go back home most of the afternoon to recharge right? Or leave the office to read a good book in a café nearby? No, I would stay at my desk, open some spreadsheets and suffer all afternoon trying to get something done, and suddenly, past 5 pm, when people are slowly starting to go back home, have a Eurêka moment and do all I had to do in a couple of hours maximum.
Open offices and their war to get the best chair or spot to work from. That’s the big issue with open offices and hot desks. You never have an ergonomic space to work from. People will use your chair if you are away for a day and change your settings. You will have to re-adapt your workspace each day. Also, you probably won’t ever get a high-end chair adapted to your needs or standing desk setup for the sake of uniformity. The ones that manage to negotiate for better equipment are generally frowned upon.
Like I just said, you can’t choose your hardware, and you have to select software to use that is in the not much up to date list from the IT department. Needless to say, if you wanted to try a new software — which happens a couple of times each year in digital marketing — you’d have to test it on your personal computer.
Having to wear makeup every day — not that I had an obligation to. Clothing and makeup are very important in the workspace, and any change you make to your style will be noticed and discussed. Not in a bad way. I have never heard of someone criticising someone else’s new haircut, but just the fact that it has to become a discussion topic is tiring. There is more to people than a new shirt.
The routine. Waking up every day at the same time, often super tired, taking a quick shower, spending time doing my hair, putting makeup on to hide the bags under my eyes — which will eventually receive some comment during the day anyway, choosing an outfit, maybe having a coffee if I am early-ish, running to the metro and squeezing in with other tired people, some of which definitely don’t live by the same hygiene standards as I do, running in the cold to my office and sitting at my desk after saying hello to some friendly faces while also catching a few judgemental looks because it’s 9.15 am, and I’m 15 minutes late, that’s not what I call a happy start to the day. Around 11.30 am comes the eternal question of “What will we have for lunch?” That moment when most people doubt where to go, no one wants to eat alone, even if that means spending 13 euros on a croque-monsieur and industrial fries you will stuff yourself with hoping it will bring you enough energy to stay awake for the rest of the day. By 4.30 pm things start to move gently. Young parents leave the office of tippy toes, on the verge of saying sorry for leaving early but at the same time eager to fetch their true purpose at the daycare. Around 5 pm, some confident guy will stand up and leave with a big smile, heading for the gym after a perfectly productive day. At 6 pm, a quiet rumble of chairs moving and tired “good evening” leaves the office too, ready to cramp in overcrowded metros and trains for an hour of a ride back home in the suburbs. And by 6.30 pm, only the ones working on massive projects, or the ones with different circadian rhythms and a sense of professionalism stay up to 7.30 pm. After that, if you are caught working in the open office when the top manager comes downstairs, you might get the chance to have a quick chat with him, and he might remember your name when the annual reviews come up.
As you probably have understood by now, I didn’t leave my 9–5 job because I hated it, but because I am not made for the way traditional businesses are run. A year ago I decided to stop sacrificing my lifestyle for safety nets I didn’t have use of. I re-evaluated my real needs and ambitions and took the leap towards a different future. Maybe not a better future, but at least one I have chosen for myself and on my terms.
I probably won’t have a collection of branded business cards to display on my big marble desk at the top of a Parisian skyscraper by the end of my career. I guess I won’t either ever receive a medal for my seniority in a company — yes, you can get those in France sometimes, like, proper decorations, like in the army! I suppose my path in life will be filled with ups and downs, turns and zigzags, but that’s okay. I don’t mind taking risks in my career if it means staying true to myself, to my values.
Today’s words are going to serve me as a reminder for later. A little pinch of truth to get back to whenever I feel like nothing is perfect enough.
Dear future me,
For months you were afraid of publishing anything, torn between wanting to be recognized as some sort of expert in your industry and being scared of people might think of you if you dared to put anything you created out there.
But here’s the thing: NO ONE CARES. No one cares if you publish something, no one cares if it isn’t perfect. No one cares if you are not politically correct or if you didn’t cite all your sources. You are not writing a doctoral thesis, you are not a renown author everyone expects a lot of, you are not a brilliant mind that will change the world in two sentences.
And if anyone did care, they would not dare say a thing. Why? Because they probably didn’t do as much as you did. They probably didn’t commit to writing what you wrote. They definitely don’t have your background and experience. No one has the capacity to write or create what you create, the way you create it. Only you have this power. And if it can help out just one person, wherever and whenever that is, then you were right to hit that ‘publish’ button, even if it was not the best piece you ever put out there. At least you gave someone else that might need it the possibility to read it.
You were told all your life to do things right, to hand out good copies, to have full marks and to do your best. Let me tell you something: in this day and age where everything goes way faster than anybody can handle, and where you made life choices that brought you the freedom you strived for, you are not meant to hand out perfect things all the time. You just cannot be perfect all the time. There is no graduation system in life and no one will be proud of you if you are not proud of yourself to start with. Very few people are capable of understanding what you are going through today, and they are not your parents, they are not your siblings, they are not your family, they are not your friends, they are not your former colleagues. They are only people that made similar life choices and that have the same ambitions as you do. Those are the not the people you can compare yourself to, but the ones you can get inspired by, and the ones you can expect valuable feedback from.
You are both creative and analytical, this is your biggest strength. Your experience is unique and highly valuable, you can trust yourself to find solutions to any situation. So hit the damn ‘publish’ button already and move on to the next thing on your to-do list.
Maybe what I wrote to myself today can help you too. If that’s the case, let me know how in the comments. As you just read, I need to be work on asking feedback to others 🙂
When I was a little girl, my family used to gather for Sunday lunch at my grandparents’. We would be over 15 people around the table, and, at the end of the meal, I would prepare coffee for everyone. I was maybe around 10 years old when I started using one of the first versions of the Nespresso machine.
As the years went by, I got better at it, stopped spilling boiling hot espresso over myself, and became a perfect little family waitress.
Later, I found out about all these other coffee recipes, from cappuccinos to mochas, latte macchiatos or americanos. The techniques and skills of the baristas I met blew me away, it was like a whole new world opened to me.
I love coffee shops. I could spend hours there listening to the never-ending rumbling of people chatting, chairs being moved around, sounds of spoons hitting cups, of the espresso machine coughing once in a while, the smell of warm coffee and foamed milk, heated croissants and ham sandwiches. It’s where I feel good, at peace, and where I can concentrate the best.
While I live in Italy, I figured it was time for me to uncover the secrets of baristas. I enrolled in a one-day course to learn all about coffee and how to make it right. I met extraordinary people from all over the world, all passionate about this little bean, and willing to share their passion with me. I learned how coffee was made, the techniques used to get the best beans, how to prepare the right Italian espresso and the real cappuccino. I even managed to make some sort of latte art!
I’m a full grown, educated woman with 2 masters degrees, travelling around Europe, and what I want now is to balance this digital nomad, freelance life, with a hands-on barista life.