(Looking for some background on the Creative Heroes series? Check out my intro post HERE!)
I met Abby, after more than a year of following her website/blog, at Midwest CraftCon in February 2016. She was one of the keynote speakers and, no doubt, a great inspiration for many of the attendees (including me, obviously!).
If you are unfamiliar with Abby, she sells patterns for adorable stuffed animals and dolls, supplies, and craft-business ebooks. She has also published several print books, including one that I consider to be a modern bible on stuffed animal construction.
(Abby’s Stuffed Animals: From Concept to Construction book – click the image above to get your own copy!)
As Abby’s business has grown over the years, the former teacher has also become somewhat of an activist for the craft and sewing industry. Along with a few other bloggers, she has advocated for issues that many others don’t talk about such as workshop instructor pay, blogger compensation, perplexing policies/practices of industry organizations, and the plight of local quilt/yarn shops.
Pretty busy lady, right? Wait… did I forget to mention that she also has three young daughters?
When I conceived of the Creative Heroes series, Abby was actually one of the first people I put on my list to reach out to. She is simply a fantastic role model in efficiency for creative business owners.
I talked with her this summer while she was packaging orders for her adorable Sewist pins. (Lesson #1 – mindful multi-tasking!)
(The adorable Sewist pin – get your own HERE!)
My initial thought after reading Abby’s blog posts explaining how she structures her day was one of amazement.
How she gets so much done in short windows of time… pretty much the bulk of her work gets done while her kids are in school!
Her response is that she is a productive person. “That’s just the way I’m wired. I’m the person who makes the most of a block of time.“
She asked me if I ever pulled an all-nighter in college. I have to be honest, I did a couple of times. But she actually never did! She told me that she made a point never to miss class, she took good notes, did her reading and writing assignments without fail, and always went to bed on time. “I’m really not a procrastinator,” she explained.
I wondered if her family cultivating those tendencies in her while she was growing up? Or did she attribute it 100% to her wiring?
Abby explained that her mom was a writer who freelanced until Abby was in high school when she took on a more traditional journalism job. Her dad is a lawyer who had his own practice. He also did some other entrepreurial things, such as starting a community credit union.
She went on to say that her dad had grown up poor and she saw both of her parents working really hard to be successful. That had a great impact on her.
Nothing was all that structured in her childhood home, but she was encouraged to explore her interests and get involved in things.
Her brother, on the other hand, has ADHD so things were different for him. He’s a successful lawyer now – he took over their dad’s practice – but he struggled growing up in ways that Abby feels she did not.
I wondered if her individual outlook was something she developed over time or if she thought it was something that we are born with?
“I’ve always been a really fastidious person,” Abby said.
She went on to relate a story from her childhood. She was in the same class as a close friend and they had a book report due. Abby had really focused on the assignment and had even made a shoe box diorama. “It was so important to me… I had focused and focused and focused on it.”
But the day it was due, Abby’s friend got on the bus and didn’t have anything. Her friend said she would just turn it in late. Abby was dumbfounded. “…and that’s really before you’re self-aware… I was like 8 or something.”
Not having something to turn in seemed unacceptable to Abby and, even at that young age, she couldn’t wrap her head around it. “I remember at that moment [thinking] ‘she didn’t do it!’… what does that mean?”
She went on to say, “… it just never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t do [the project]. Even if you forgot and you did it really late at night and you did a bad job, I would always do it, you know?”
I know exactly what she means but do I think a lot of people have a hard time getting themselves in that head space.
I related to her that I think people can be very self-defeating. They often set themselves up for failure. Even people who wouldn’t call themselves perfectionists, find themselves giving up before they’ve even started because they imagine it won’t be perfect.
Abby responded, “I’m not a perfectionist, so it’s ok if it’s not perfect. But I really am a big believer in done is better than perfect.”
She went on to describe her theory on how perfectionism drives people to create excuses: “…you’re procrastinating because you know that if you start it when there’s only four hours left to finish… it cannot be perfect. And therefore you can sort of be like ‘well, I didn’t have enough time.’ And it’s almost like you set up so that your imperfection is excusable. When really you had four days so if you had just stated earlier, it might have still been imperfect but maybe you wouldn’t have had that way of explaining it to yourself.”
“You might have had to then say ‘well, maybe I’m not perfect’… or ‘maybe I have to learn more’ or ‘I have to develop my skills more’ and that’s why it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have enough time… I’d rather sort of look it in the face than make it so that I can’t achieve.”
I agree with Abby’s observation and have often challenged students of my Time Management class in a similar vein. I’ve asked crafters why – when craft show schedules/applications are put out months in advance – are they procrastinating and scrambling and making excuses in the 11th hour before a show.
I also think that awful need for perfection sometimes comes from comparing ourselves… That whole comparing-your-inner-world-to-someone-else’s-outer-world thing.
I mentioned this to Abby and said that it’s almost a relief to me when I talk with someone who has “made it” and they say that they still have those moments where they are scared that they aren’t enough.
Abby’s thoughts were: “When you do have some sense of success, the stakes become higher. And so it’s hard to experiment… It becomes harder to sort of try something that’s not what you’ve been doing. To try something different.”
She went on to say, “When nobody’s looking – when you’re small and unknown – it’s much easier to try things… if your product wasn’t perfect or the thing you made didn’t really work… it’s ok! …but as you get a following the stakes are higher and it actually becomes more pressure. So the pressure kind of ramps up along with the success.”
I had never really thought about it that way! I guess it can be challenging to start out and challenging once you’ve “made it!”
As Abby and I chatted further, I mentioned that I was curious about her summer schedule versus her school year schedule. In my case, my son is in college now so structured summer kid stuff isn’t an issue and I think my seasons kind of blend into each other without much change.
But since so much of Abby’s work gets done when her girls are at school, what does she do in the summer?
“Well, my kids go to camp. So that’s really helpful,” Abby said. “I’m a big believer in camp… I love camp! I think camp is a great time to explore things that you can’t explore during the school year.”
She went on to say, “I send my kids to good camps so they’re not generalized, rec center sort of day camps. They’re really specialty, awesome camps where you’re going to get great instruction in those things you’re interested in… like sewing, for example if you’re someone like me! You don’t really get that in school anymore.”
“So, for me, camp is a big part of our summers. Actually my summer schedule is better- as far as time is concerned – than my winter schedule. Because in the summer we don’t have after-school activities.”
“During the school year, Wednesdays is a half day for the entire district… so my kids are home at noon. And then… with three kids – they’re different ages, they have very different interests – so we have a lot of different after-school activities and I have to drive them everywhere. So my time is much more limited during the school year.”
As we discussed the topic of juggling a business plus our kids’ needs, I was reminded of Megan Neilson’s recent article about running a business with three small children at home. I personally love the idea of getting kids to experience “alone time” and to explore their own interests so, as moms, we can have time for our own work.
Abby seemed to concur with me: “Yeah, I think it’s a modern expectation that you’re going to sit with your child and play constantly and devote all of your attention [to them]. I think [historically] parents always spent time in a day devoting all of their attention to their child, but not all the time, you know?”
“…We just finished re-reading the Little House on the Prairie series with my youngest one and you know, Laura’s mom does not come out onto the prairie and play with them… Laura’s mom is not playing ring-around-the-rosy and hide & seek in the yard… Laura’s mom is making soap. And cleaning. And cooking. And cutting wood. And doing all that important work.
Laura and her sisters are out playing all day and they had a great childhood. She grew up to be Laura Ingalls Wilder! So I don’t think it was out of neglect… the expectation that her mother would be outside, or even inside, playing structured games with her all day long, that’s a modern notion…”
(Abby’s fun Sew & Play Puzzle Ball Animals book – click the image above to get your copy & learn how to make these unique toys!)
Abby continued, “It makes us feel guilty, if we do want to work. And I DO want to work. I’m a person who really enjoys work and really likes to exercise the intellectual part of my brain and interact with an industry, try to make change when I feel like change should be made, and be creative…”
“If you are a person like that and want that kind of stimulation in your day, and then you also want to be a mom, which I do. I love being a mom – I have three wonderful children. You know, to think you can do bother of those things 100% completely… that’s just bonkers!”
I mentioned that I think it is a terrible fallacy that working moms are made to feel that they be able to give 110% to their families AND 110% to their work. Perfect balance is just a myth.
Abby agreed, “As women, we put our pressure on ourselves. To volunteer, to be involved in school, the PTA, and to do all of these different things. And you end up failing in some way at one or the other and feeling terrible that you can’t do everything perfectly and you can’t. So there’s compromise.”
I told Abby that’s definitely something I address when I’m teaching creative people about time management. We have to choose what’s right for our families, but also balance our own needs and professional development.
I always give the example that I was never a PTA mom.
I sent money and supported the school where I could but I usually had to bow out of the PTA stuff when my son was little.
Abby is the same way: “I don’t do it at all… I’ve never been to a PTA meeting… I used to be a teacher! And I love school!”
She further explained, “I chose one thing over another, and that’s ok. I do feel badly to a degree. Like you, I send money and I drop off brownies… I’m sure I could help a lot at the school and learn a lot too… but I wouldn’t be able to have a business.”
“That’s ok. That’s a choice. There are lots of women at [my kids’ school] who… are really talented and well-educated who run the PTA and do an amazing job. And me and my kids totally benefit from their expertise. But I choose whatever I have to run this business instead.”
As our conversation progressed, I mentioned to Abby that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her talk about the actual methods she uses to keep track of her business schedule.
I asked: Can you talk about calendars? Or whatever kind of technology you use?
Abby said that she uses iCal. She has a Mac laptop, both she and her husband have iPhones, and they have a desktop Mac computer for the kids. So iCal can sync across all of those.
She explained that they have different colors to denote different things – one color for family stuff, one color for While She Naps business activities, and another for Creative Industry Alliance things.
She went on to say that she and Kristin also maintain some Google docs for other Creative Industry Alliance scheduling needs. And of course, she has her yellow legal pads for her To-Do lists.
I had to laugh. I remember reading about Abby’s legal pads! It’s something that I love about her.
I mentioned to her that I’m pretty proficient managing things with technology, but I really like to physically write things down as well.
“I think it’s because I was born in 1975,” Abby replied, “I learned to write in 1980, and was in school throughout the ’80s and then in college… in the ’90s and finished my grad degree in 2000. So really from the ’80s, all the way through those 20 years were when I sort of ‘learned to learn.'”
“At that time, the way I ‘learned to learn’ was through writing things down on a piece of paper. And that’s how I operated. So even yesterday, I was writing a blog post… I write my blog posts in Microsoft Word and then I print them out so that I can edit them with a purple pen. Then I put the edits into Word and I do it again, then I upload it to WordPress and format it and everything because when I was in college we printed things out.”
“It’s really a product of the age in which I came up. I think my kids have a different process. And I don’t really think the process matters that much. I think it’s more if it works for you, and it’s efficient for you, that’s completely fine.”
(Abby’s ebook The Insiders Guide to Starting an Online Sewing Pattern Business – click the image above to get the Kindle version!)
To wrap up our talk, I asked Abby if she had any advice for Creative + Mindful readers who struggle with disorganization/productivity and are trying to bring structure and organization to their creative lives, or creative businesses?
Abby’s thoughts were this: “My mom is like that. She is not an organized person… she’s a productive person, but not organized. Even she will tell you, she is not organized. But she operated well because she always had a list.”
“I think that’s probably my best piece of advice. To have a list always running of things that you need to do. I especially think the list is great on Friday afternoon. Even when I was working as a teacher, I would always on Friday afternoon make a list of things I wanted to make sure to accomplish on Monday… on Monday I could get right back into it, I wouldn’t have to remember ‘what was it I was trying to do?'”
“I think if you are busy… and you have a list and the list isn’t really broad and big-picture – it’s small picture – so it’s not like ‘set up WordPress site.’ That’s a huge To-Do, not a realistic To-Do. But ‘listen to a podcast interview with a WordPress developer,’ that would be a good To-Do… something that you could really accomplish today.”
She gave another example, “Like ‘pin 5 images.’ That’s totally do-able. Then when you sit down, you can get started quickly. So I think a list is really important.”
I related that pretty much all of the people I’ve talked to for Creative Heroes have said lists are really important to their work and breaking things down is critical.
“Nothing is more motivating than success,” Abby responded. “So if you can do one thing and it’s successful, you’re going to be motivated to the next thing… that feels really good and that good feeling motivates you to be like ‘ok! what’s next!'”
Enormous thanks to Abby for taking time out to chat with me about productivity and kid-schedules and old school note taking!
Want more Abby? If you’re looking for business and industry suggestions, be sure to check out her website. (And sign up for her weekly newsletter – it is one of just a few that I religiously read in its entirety every week.) You can shop for her patterns, ebooks, and other goodies there too!
Also, if you are an arts & crafts business owner – or thinking about becoming one – be sure to check out Craft Industry Alliance membership. It’s a great investment for your business!