Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tracking My Life with Symple (App Review)

Disclaimer: This is not sponsored, I'm just an app geek who really loves this app! :) 

I recently shared some of the lessons I've learned in the first year since being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in a video on my YouTube channel (watch it here). Learning how to read the signals my body is sending me is a huge part of how I keep track of physical and mental symptoms. And one way that I've been able to keep a record of those symptoms is through an app called Symple. I've been using this app for several months now and it's been enormously helpful in more ways than one, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the app in case it might help others looking for something similar.

How it works

You choose or create the symptoms you want to track. The free version lets you track 10 symptoms but I paid for the upgrade, it was only a couple bucks and totally worth it. The day is then broken up into 4 segments, night, AM, mid day, and PM. You can set reminder alerts at any time within those time blocks and you rank each symptom on a scale: none, mild, moderate, difficult, severe. I try to do my tracking at the same time each day. I do the night check as soon as I wake up and put in anything that I noticed during the night. If I slept straight through I usually select "none" for everything. But if I had insomnia, bad dreams, woke up a few times with back or knee pain, I would record that as soon as I wake up. I do the AM after I've been awake for a few hours later in the morning. Then I usually check in around the middle of the afternoon and finally about an hour or so before bed.

There are some other functions, like a journal, and "factors" that you can record as well. Factors are things that impact your symptoms. So you can record a factor when you eat certain foods or go to physical therapy, have a good day at work or a bad day at work, and then see how those factors correspond to an increase or decrease in the severity of your symptoms. For someone who is interested in tracking how their body or mind responds to a certain food or exercise, this is really helpful, but it's not a feature I use. But I do appreciate that it has that function if I need it.

There's also a calendar so you can jump back to any day to see how you were feeling and an option to print of a report that you could take to your doctor which could be really helpful if you're needing to track a number of symptoms and issues. I've been using it to track both my mental health (anxiety, depression, bad dreams, nightmares, stress level, etc.) and my pain (knee, lower back, shoulder) as well as sort throat from allergies, and my other fibro symptoms like brain fog and fatigue.

If you tilt the screen you can get a chart of the last month, 3 months, 6 months, year, and 2 years, which gives you a great overview of how you're feeling over a longer course of time. If you tap the little "i" for information button you get a overlay of the ranking of the symptoms, I love this because it helps me see over the course of a month or so how many times any symptom was in the difficult or severe range. You can also view two symptoms at a time, you just slide the top or bottom until you get to the pairing you want, this is great because it lets me see how my fatigue matches with my stress or anxiety (am I more or less anxious if I'm more or less tired?), it's been enormously helpful.

Overall the app is super user friendly and easy to use. I've tried a few other symptom trackers before but they were so confusing and had way too many features. I've been using Symple for a few months and it's been exactly what I want. 

Why I love it

The biggest thing I like about this app, the reason I've used it so consistently, is because of the record it provides for me. I can see how I'm feeling throughout the day. If I have a rough afternoon it's easy to feel like the whole day was miserable. But the app shows me that the morning actually wasn't bad. If by Friday I'm feeling dead on my feet and super anxious about something and feel tempted to write off the whole week as being bad I can look back through and see that the beginning of the week I was actually feeling really good. I can also see where things started to go downhill, and while I don't track factors in the app I do have a record of my days and my schedule in my bullet journal, so I can usually pin point what it was that tanked the week. Looking at the monthly view I can see roughly what percentage of the month I was doing well with a symptom versus not so well. 

For example, I haven't had a major dizzy spell in months, and even though the depression feels like a constant dark cloud, in reality in the past 3 month period I've had as many days with no recorded depression as I've had with a record, and even then only about seven days were ranked at "difficult" and none were "severe". That's a major improvement from the past but also makes me wonder how much of my feeling depressed or in pain in the past was my mind collapsing days in on each other and making me feeling like I was struggling on more days than I really was. We remember bad days more than we remember good days. All it takes is two consecutive rough days and my mind automatically starts thinking the whole week was bad. Since I've started tracking my mood and pain in Symple I've been able to see the days and weeks as they really are, not as my mind twists them. It keeps me from blowing things out of proportion but also helps me deal with problems when they are clearly becoming a repeated problem. When I go to physical therapy on Monday I can look at the app and see that a few days before on Friday I was struggling with back pain and I can tell my PT that's what we need to work on. And it's been a huge help with my psychologist and being able to see how my depression and anxiety are doing from one week to the next. (See last week's post here for a discussion on how I've been taking care of my mental health)

Whatever your problems or struggles, this app has so much flexibility, I've been able to use it for so many more things than I'd thought I would. I'm usually really inconsistent with tracker apps. (Probably why I'm still not drinking enough water lol!) But I've been so consistent with Symple and I can tell it's made a big difference.

I hope this review has helped. Any questions or comments? Please leave them below, I love hearing from you! 


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

I've seen a lot of posts online this week talking about Mental Health Week, and a quick Google search also showed that May is Mental Health Month. Both of these things are great, we need more discussions about mental health issues and concerns and ways of starting to chip away at the stigma that has had control of many of us for too long.

We see a lot of nonsense online, people trying to tell us that mental health issues are just a phase or trend and that those of us who say we suffer from anxiety/depression/etc are just faking it, trying to be trendy, or (my personal favorite) just want to be a "special snowflake". *insert massive eyeroll*

Can we just talk about the ridiculousness of that last one? Snowflakes are wonderful because they're beautiful and unique, no two snowflakes are exactly the same. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be a snowflake?! Every human being is special and beautiful and unique. So, hate to break it to the critics, but we're all special snowflakes. Each and every one of us. And if mental health is becoming a bigger topic of conversation these days, it's not because it's a new "trend", it's because more people are finally being brave enough to share their experiences and speak up about this topic. It's not a new topic, we're just finally getting more vocal about it.

Seriously, who wouldn't want to be something so pretty?!
I've talked about my own struggle with anxiety and depression on my YouTube channel (you can watch the video here). I've also shared my struggles with feeling like a fraud and a failure (aka "Imposter Syndrome", you can watch that video here) and they are definitely all connected. I've always dealt with anxiety and depression, long before I had language to describe or label my experiences. These days I talk mostly about my experiences in grad school working on my PhD and how that contributes to my mental health issues, but before grad school it was struggling through my undergrad degree and worrying about my future (your typical quarter life crisis, though we definitely didn't call it that then lol) and before that it was all the joys and sorrows of high school and before that it was the massive high and lows of growing up an Army brat. Point is, my life, like most people's lives, has not been easy. We all have our struggles and I'm no exception.

Grad school really does bring it's own special brand of anxiety.
I've been in and out of therapy a few times over the last several years, actually more like the past 15 years. But it's only been recently that I've realized how important a really good therapist is. My first one was nice, but it really was just a venting session each week, and then no skills for helping me deal with things the rest of the time. I moved, stopped seeing her, and never got back into therapy. Several years later, after starting my PhD program, I was really struggling with adjusting to the program and dealing with being a PhD student. Increased responsibilities and obligations plus imposter syndrome is a really nasty combination. It got to the point where even my friends were noticing things and finally said to me, "we love you and we're here for you but we think you need to see someone," one friend even walked with me to the counseling center on campus.

Over the course of that semester I worked with an amazing therapist, who was so different from the first one. We started uncovering past issues that I was still dealing with but had internalized and shoved so deep down I didn't realize they were still affecting me. We made a lot of progress in only about 15 sessions. But on campus they can only do short term counseling and it was about to be summer break and I was going to the UK for the whole summer so we decided we'd transition me to someone off campus in the fall. That summer was great, life changing you could say. I visited a friend in Prague, did study abroad in Oxford, spent a ton of time in London, and met some amazing people. I got back to Arizona and thought "I'm fine! I don't need therapy anymore." That was a mistake. The second year wasn't as rough as the first year but it was still hard, and I wasn't coping as best as I could. But I had some new friends and I was able to distract myself enough. I also had a trip to London planned for Christmas and was planning to spend the next summer in Oxford again as well, so planning those trips served as a distraction.

My time in Oxford, over both summers spent there, were huge learning experiences for me personally. They weren't all easy lessons, but I wouldn't trade those summers for anything.
That following summer had a lot of ups and downs, and even though I knew I needed to come home to see my doctor and get back to school, I didn't want to leave England. I think deep down I knew my mental health had gotten really bad again and I needed help, and that's a really daunting feeling to deal with. I forced myself to call my insurance company for a referral to a therapist as soon as I got home and was back in therapy within about a month. That therapist was really great at helping me with some of the issues that I was struggling with, especially the anxiety. And after a few months I was feeling a lot calmer and more in control. But there were still things that were nagging at me that I just couldn't express to her and she didn't seem able to pull it out of me. Then I got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, and then later I had to switch insurance companies. By that point I knew I was kind of ready for a new therapist, so the insurance change provided a good excuse/opportunity.

I went to campus to get my consultation/referral, I had switched to campus healthcare so I had to go through them to find someone off campus. I delayed going for a couple months. I switched providers in August, I didn't go to the counseling center until October, and only after having a really bad panic attack. I went in for the consultation thinking of the last therapist I'd seen there and how I hoped they could find me someone like her but off campus and able to see me long term. That's when my mental health miracle happened.

That therapist was now working off campus, was covered by my provider, was able to start seeing me the following week, AND her office was 5 minutes down the road from my apartment.

It was too much to just be a coincidence.

That was back in late October. I'd was worried she wouldn't be able to see me until after Thanksgiving, but she had something that following week, which meant we had a good couple months to work together before Christmas and my trip to London with my mom and sister. After our first appointment we decided to meet twice a week, which at the time made me feel like, "wow, I must be worse than I thought," but after some time it made a lot of sense and made the sessions so much more productive. At some point I'll probably switch to once a week but even now, several months later, I'm not ready yet. You'd think by now I'd understand myself better but I'm learning with each day that I'm much more complex than I give myself credit for. We all are.

The difficulty with mental health is there's no quick fix. Medication can help with some things, but it doesn't solve everything. Therapy is great but it takes a ton of time! You have to work through all the issues, including things that you might have already dismissed as not important. You think the problem is ABC but you get into it and realize it's also XYZ. I'm not brave enough to get into all the things that she and I are working on, but one day I will be. The more I got into therapy the more I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I'm still exploring Wonderland and discovering all sorts of crazy things, but I'm also gaining all the knowledge I'll need to eventually climb back out of the rabbit hole. I'm learning to be patient and to be compassionate towards myself. To be quiet and listen to my inner voice that I've been stifling and silencing for too long. It's not an easy process, nor is it a quick one, but it's worth the time and energy and bravery that each session requires.

I still struggle with being open about my experiences. In some situations I just don't feel safe talking about my mental health. Not everyone understands and there are still a lot of people who think we're making it all up. I'm not entirely sure those people are as happy as they pretend. Not everyone struggles with severe mental health issues, but I think everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum. Some people really can make themselves feel better by thinking positively or meditating or exercising. Some of us need extra help. There's no shame in that.

I always say, if you're just having a bad day or a bad week, play your favorite music, try meditation, try thinking happy thoughts. But if your bad day or week has turned into a bad month which has turned into a bad year which has turned into you honestly can't remember the last time you were truly happy?......go see someone, as soon as possible. Go see your doctor, go through the referral process for a therapist, go see the counseling services at your school, do whatever you have to do but just do it. You deserve to be happy. And don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Yes, life is tough and you're going to have bad days, but you should be having more good days than bad so if you're not, get yourself the help you need and deserve. You are a special, beautiful, unique, magical snowflake and that is a good thing. You are precious and loved and wanted. And it really does get better.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

The importance of treating yourself

Having fresh flowers in my apartment is a small luxury with a big impact on my mood.

I have learned over the years, especially since starting grad school, that you shouldn't wait or depend on others to treat you from time to time and reward/celebrate your own accomplishments. There's a popular saying that you can't expect others to love you until you love yourself, and I think this is a similar concept. If you don't reward yourself or treat yourself to the things you love, you're not setting an example to others in your life that you deserve these things. It's even more important to treat yourself occasionally if you're the type of person who tends to reward and celebrate others. Also please note, as I will discuss later, I'm not talking about spending large amounts of money, the focus should be on how it makes you feel not how much you spend.

As someone who's been single for most of her life, I learned not to wait for someone to give me flowers or buy my jewelry, and that these things sometimes mean more when I buy them for myself than when they're given to me. For a lot of people I know and talk to, the thought of buying themselves flowers or going to the movies by themselves "just because" feels weird or wrong somehow. Why should it ever be wrong to treat ourselves the way we deserve to be treated and would want to be treated by the people in our lives?

To celebrate my ABD status we "upgraded" our usual lunch on Sundays to include a glass of prosecco and soufflé.

When it comes to celebrating life's milestones, why wait for someone to say, "hey, you did this amazing thing! we should celebrate!" I'm a huge advocate for rewarding yourself, for big and small accomplishments. Sometimes this involves me saying to my family, "I want to do something special for my birthday," or "Let's order prosecco and dessert at lunch this weekend to celebrate [insert PhD accomplishment of the moment]". As a grad student especially, there are so many miserable, stressful moments, when you get a victory, you celebrate it, whether it's simply surviving the semester or passing a huge milestone in your program.

But you can also celebrate little things, or do something nice/fun for yourself for no other reason than simply because you're amazing and you deserve it. I think this is something that a lot of us struggle with. My generation seems plagued by imposter syndrome and low self-esteem, combined with anxiety and depression and a whole host of other issues. Personally I don't think we're the first generation to deal with this, we're probably just the first to be so open and vocal about it. But with all of this comes an natural instinct to downplay our accomplishments and tell ourselves that that promotion at work/acceptance to present at a conference/landing a new client/earning a great commission/etc is just part of the normal routine or isn't anything special and doesn't deserve recognition, even from yourself. We also convince ourselves that we're not really that great, we don't deserve a little thing to cheer us up, we're not that special so why bother?

And we really need to stop.

I was recently talking about finally earning my PhD Candidacy and my ABD status in my program (ABD means All But Dissertation for those wondering) in a YouTube video update. And in the video I was getting a bit caught up in how impressed I was with myself for everything I'd accomplished this past year in school and I immediately started apologizing and saying I wasn't "trying to brag". I had to be reminded by one of my amazing subscribers and friends that it's not bragging to say you're proud of yourself. (Thanks Belinda, I needed that reminder!) And it's so true! But we (especially us women) seem to be trained to think that being proud of our accomplishments and celebrating those achievements publicly is "bragging" or waving our own flag a bit too much. And that's really sad. Like, really really sad. Why do we do this?!

So I've long been an advocate of celebrating and rewarding myself, or simply treating myself to little things from time to time to cheer myself up or to remind myself that there are good things in life to look forward to. Some of these things cost more than others. Some involve other people, some I do just on my own. But they all make me happy and remind me to appreciate all I've done and reward myself for the hard work I've put in. This semester I bought myself three gifts, a pen, a card holder, and a ring, to celebrate my portfolio review pass, my comp exam pass, and my colloquy pass. Each one was a higher value than the one before because the accomplishment was bigger. But none of them were extremely expensive. And now, when I use these items, I think about these accomplishments and milestones and feel proud of what I've achieved. It's a good feeling.

Pen from Swarovski to celebrate my portfolio review pass.

Card holder from Ted Baker to celebrate passing my Comp Exam.

The ring I bought myself from Swarovski to celebrate my ABD status and earning my PhD Candidacy. 
And as for dealing with critics that want to judge how women, especially single women, spend their own money? Just ignore them. Society (as a general collective) is threatened by nothing more than smart, independent women, with money of their own. And people just love tearing down a woman who happens to love nice things. We're shallow and superficial and there must be a man somewhere paying for it all. For those of us in and/or interested in the beauty community on YouTube, all we have to do is read the comments of any luxury beauty/lifestyle YouTube channel and we find examples of this kind of nastiness and criticism. And it's so damaging. It only reinforces our natural instinct to NOT purchase something frivolous as an occasional treat or reward. But I say screw them. I work hard in my life. Maybe I make frivolous purchases, maybe I buy stuff I don't "need". Actually, there's not maybe about it. I KNOW I make frivolous purchases and buy stuff I don't "need", but I really don't care. I spend my money wisely, I save up for most of these little rewards, I stick within a certain budget. I'm still paying my bills. It's not like I'm spending my PhD stipend and student loans on Chanel bags or Cartier jewelry. I admit I'm extravagant but I'm not completely irresponsible lol. 

But money is a very subjective thing. What's "reasonable" to me might be absolutely reckless spending to someone else. So the main point I want to make, is that none of these rewards or treats needs to be of a material sort or cost you a lot of money. In fact some of the things I do cost very little/are free. You have to choose what best fits your budget, your lifestyle, your personality, etc. Personally, I love shopping, so telling myself I'm going to take an afternoon just to go read a book at a coffee shop and buy one item at Sephora, is one of my favorite things to do. Now sure, one item could cost you a bit, but it could also be just a $5 sheet mask that you later use to pamper yourself. If you don't like shopping, maybe you skip Sephora and just read at the coffee shop. I know for most grad students taking an afternoon off work to just read for fun is a huge luxury. The point is, find what works for you. 

I recently enjoyed an afternoon at the Scottsdale Quarter doing some shopping at Sephora and then reading at Press Coffee, it was a great afternoon and so relaxing. I definitely needed it after all the stress of the semester!
Here is a list of some ideas:

  • Read at a coffee shop
  • Buy yourself flowers, figure out what shop near you has the best deals and take advantage. My local Costco has 2 dozen roses for only $17, and they tend to last me at least a full week.
  • Take a walk/hike (not as a workout but just to slowly wander and enjoy the scenery)
  • Take an evening at home to enjoy a drink, put on a face mask, and watch Netflix (I advocate doing this at least once a week!)
  • Go to the movies, with a friend or by yourself
  • Buy yourself a cupcake at your favorite bakery, have a rough day a work? Buy a cupcake. Have a good day at work? Buy a cupcake! Seriously, even at the "nice" places they're usually not more than $4 and you totally deserve that cupcake
  • Meeting friends for lunch or happy hour? Upgrade your usual glass of wine or cocktail to a glass of prosecco or champagne, it's not going to cost that much more than your usual drink order but will feel much more special.
  • Go visit your local museum. Depending on the museum this might not even cost you. In the UK a lot of museums are free and during the two summers I spent in England I would just spend an afternoon exploring different museums. But even here in Phoenix, the Phoenix Art Museum is free one evening every week. You can also find deals and discounts for a lot of other cultural things in your town, so do some research and treat yourself to some art and culture.
  • Live in a city with great weather? Go for a picnic! Take an afternoon to just go hang out in a park under a tree and relax. I can't really do this in Arizona but I did this constantly both summers I lived in Oxford and I miss it so much.
  • If you know you've got a big milestone coming up, save up some money for something you've been wanting. For me this is usually either something sparkly from Swarovski or something floral printed at Ted Baker lol. But it could also be a new video game you've been wanting, a new fancy pen you've been lusting after, a new pair of Nikes for the gym, etc. Even people that aren't big on designer items, probably still have something they really want but usually talk themselves out of buying. Just got a big promotion and you've been eyeing an Apple watch but could never justify the cost? Come on, if you can afford it and you really want it, you've earned it.
  • Money not an issue but you just don't like buying "things"? Ok, how about giving yourself a weekend at a nice hotel in a nearby town and just getting away for a couple days. Rewards and treats don't have to be about material items, they can also be about experiences. 
Celebration at home with a mini bottle of rose and a cupcake from Caketini.
These are just a few examples but hopefully they give you some ideas of how you can adapt this to your own life. The main point is finding things that you love/love to do, but rarely allow yourself the chance to indulge in. These days we're working harder than ever but not really enjoying ourselves along the way. We're living to work not working to live. We're losing any sense of work/life balance. It's ok to stop and have a Netflix night or sleep in ridiculously late on a Saturday morning. It's definitely worth it to spend an afternoon at the movies (even by yourself) or sitting in a coffee shop reading a novel (or writing one! that's a huge luxury for me!). 

My general tip is, if there's something you really want or want to do, and are able to do, but constantly talk yourself out of it, just do it. It's totally worth it and you absolutely deserve it.

Let me know in the comments what/if you do anything to treat yourself.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Looking Back....April 2017

Normally when a new month starts I ask myself where the previous month went. But in this case, I know exactly where April went. It went in a haze of prospectus writing and revising and working towards the last step in earning my candidacy. So let's rewind to the beginning of the month and recap everything I've done and learned...

April means spring flowers here in the desert,

At the start of the month I got to take a day trip with my dad down to our family home in Sierra Vista. After all the stress in March of my comp exam it was nice to be able to take some time to get out of Phoenix and enjoy the Arizona scenery and blue skies that go on for miles. I had to bring some homework with me, but it was still a great break from my usual schedule and a nice way to start the month. Plus I don't get to spend much time with my dad these days, so it's nice to be able to spend a day with him. As I progress through my PhD, graduation is getting closer and closer and I'm pretty certain that I will be moving out of the state after I graduate, so spending time with my family is feeling even more important now that my time living so close to them is starting to feel like it's nearing the end.

Mountain scenery down by State Route 90 on our way to Sierra Vista.

Then we had Easter. Which was another great chance to spend some time with my family. We didn't do anything extravagant, just had a quiet day at home with my family and the doggies. We had great food, mom made a ham and cheesy potatoes (a long time family favorite) as well as the traditional Easter bread. It wouldn't be Easter without that bread lol. Mom's made it every year for as long as I can remember. It's based on a traditional Italian family recipe that her dad made when she was growing up. So yummy! It was a great day and just so nice to hang out at home with everyone.

Tulips for Easter!

By the middle of the month I was firmly in the prospectus writing process. What a daunting process that was! After years of thinking about my dissertation trying to actually describe what I will be doing was so overwhelming. I was no longer thinking about it abstractly but having to really think about the step by step process I would need to take to do the research and actually write the dissertation. As PhD students, we spend so much time thinking generally about our research project and when people ask us what our dissertation will be we usually have a 2 sentence summary of what we'll be looking at, but for the prospectus I had to take those 2 sentences and expand it to 20 pages explaining my project in great detail! Not an easy thing to do.

Prospectus research

I finally had gotten the prospectus far enough along that my advisor was willing to let me schedule my colloquy. The colloquy is basically a formal meeting between me and my dissertation committee where we sit down and go over my prospectus, section by section, and discuss any questions or issues any of us have. This is the BIG MEETING. This is when they decide I'm ready to start the dissertation and I get ABD status. ABD is "All But Dissertation", it's also when I earn my candidacy and become a PhD Candidate, instead of a PhD student. The difference between student and candidate may seem like a minor distinction to some, but it's actually a pretty big deal, so a lot was riding on the colloquy. But I wasn't nervous, I was pretty excited. I just wanted it to be time for the meeting and have that discussion.

The night before colloquy, jotting down some final notes and general prep.

The colloquy was on the 26th and went great. It was definitely overwhelming and they had some pretty tough questions. But we also arrived at some really helpful conclusions and I feel a million times more focused on what I'm going to be doing. It was great to get their perspective and help on some of the problems I knew I was having. We took the full time allotted, an hour and a half, but it flew by and before I knew it, it was all done and they were all checking "pass" on the form, which I then took to the 5th floor to the program manager for her to sign off and submit. By the end of the day I had the official email from the graduate college congratulating me on achieving candidacy.

I did it! I still can't quite believe it, but I did it. I'm officially ABD.

Now, a few days later, I'm still processing it all. In a lot of ways it feels like nothing's changed, but in other ways it's like being in a whole different place. It really is the weirdest feeling and one that I can't completely describe just yet. I'm trying to give myself some time to think and breath and reset myself. I've got a few things to finish up for the semester, still have grading to do for my students lol, but that should all be wrapped up by Tuesday. I'll probably take the rest of the week off. I desperately need a bit of a vacation. But us PhD students know, there's no rest for the weary. I honestly need a month off but I can't take it. I need to start my dissertation research and getting ready to start drafting chapters. I have no idea how to write a dissertation, I'm in uncharted territory and feel like I'm starting a whole new adventure. It's going to be a very interesting summer for sure. But I definitely want to give myself at least a few days to just do nothing (which is why I'm hoping to wrap up the semester by the end of Monday so I can have nearly a full week to rest). I did take some time on Friday to go to the cinema and saw The Circle with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, definitely a film worth checking out. And then did some shopping at Swarovski and bought myself a sparkly gift and then got one of my favorite cupcakes at Caketini. 

Celebrating ABD at Zinc Bistro
Today, on Sunday, I went out for my usual lunch at Zinc Bistro with my mom and sister and we celebrated there with the most amazing chocolate soufflé and a glass of prosecco. Zinc Bistro has become a standard date for us and we've become friends with all of the staff that work there, they always take such great care of us and ask me about school all the time, so there really was no where else I would want to celebrate this milestone. It was the best way to wrap up a pretty fantastic week and month.

Thank you as well to those of you who read this blog and follow my journey on Instagram or YouTube. It's been a crazy semester and you've been with me every step of the way. I appreciate your support more than I can express. You all really are the best ever! If you want to see my whole month in about 30 seconds, check out the video below from the 1 Second Everyday app.




Sunday, April 23, 2017

YouTube Observations #5 - Lessons Learned in 1 Year on YouTube

On April 1st I celebrated 1 year on YouTube. I can hardly believe a whole year has gone by. It felt like such a wild idea to start a YouTube channel and now I can't really imagine my life without it. So I thought it would be fun share all my observations of what I've learned about running a YouTube channel. I did a video on this subject but I had so many thoughts about each of these lessons that I figured a corresponding blog post would be a good idea. I'll link the video at the bottom of this post if you want to see that. So here we go, my top 12 lessons learned in 1 year on YouTube...

1) Be patient and persistent

Rome wasn't built in a day. And no one hits 1000 subscribers overnight. Building up a YouTube channel takes time. It takes a lot of patience and persistence. In my first observation post I talked about the two kinds of YouTubers I noticed, those whose focus was on the numbers and those whose focus was on the community. Number focused channels aren't willing to be patient and persistent. They want to get as many subscribers as possible, as fast as possible. But what they don't realize is that that's not sustainable. When you're engaging in practices like "sub for sub" and gaining subscribers who don't actually watch your videos those people will only unsubscribe from you within a few months when they do a sub box clean up. It's worth it to be patient and let your channel grow naturally over time than try to rush the process. Rushing is kind of like building a house on a sand foundation, it will never stay upright. Part of the reason I think some people try to rush is that they compare themselves to the large channels (we'll talk more about comparison later) and this is not helpful. While some of the larger channels do seem to have fast growth, there are other factors that small YouTubers often overlook. For example, I've seen channels gain 10k subscribers seemingly overnight, and then surpass 400k within a year. But what people often don't realize si that in this cases the creator usually already has a large following on a blog or Instagram or something, and that following transitions over to YouTube, hence the 0-10k "overnight", so they're starting at a huge advantage. As such they're growth is going to be exponentially larger than the average small YouTuber. While I might gain 10 subscribers in a month (just as an example), someone with 10k subscribers might gain 100 in a month. I could get 500 in a year, but because our growth rates are different, a larger channel could gain 500k in a year. Part of this is simple math and the algorithm, larger channels with higher views will put you at the top of search results. But it's only part of the equation. Channels with regular growth rates are also channels that are patient and persistent. They have a positive attitude and stay focused on the content and building a solid foundation for their channel. They are also consistent in their content. Which leads to lesson #2...

2) Be consistent

Consistency is key. When you put out regular and consistent content viewers respond. If I subscribe to someone I want to know that I will be able to build a relationship with that channel. This applies to both large and small channels. The large channels I watch religiously, put out consistent uploads. I know, that with the very occasional exceptions, I can count on a video from certain creators on Sunday and other creators on Wednesday. But this also works for smaller channels. I know that Wednesdays mean something fun from Shannon on her channel Pages and Polish, and Fridays mean something fabulous from Alice on her channel Alice Red. When you're consistent subscribers can form relationships with your content and you'd be surprised how many of them start to schedule their day around your uploads. On Sundays a lot of my fave channels, large and small, upload videos. So I plan to be done with all my errands and tasks by 5pm so I can grab something for dinner and settle in to hang out with my "friends".  Compare this to channels that aren't consistent. When I get someone commenting on my videos asking me to check out (and sub to) their channel, one of the first things I do when I click on their channel is click on the "videos" tab and look at the frequency of their uploads. If I see that they've been on YouTube for over a year but only have six videos, each with 3 months of more of time in between uploads, that tells me they're not consistent, and I'm significantly less likely to subscribe. When I subscribe I want to know that there will be regular uploads that I can watch and comment on. I'm also more worried that if they aren't uploading frequently they might not be that engaged in the community and might not watch my videos. I'm looking for a mutual relationship with small channels. Consistency pays off in more ways than one.

3) Participate and engage with the community

In addition to being patient, persistent, and consistent, you also have to participate and engage within the community. My channel would still have only 10 subscribers if I didn't subscribe to other channels, watch their videos, and leave sincere comments that show I'm actually paying attention to their content. People respond to subscribers who honestly and sincerely engage with their content. I've formed so many amazing relationships with people over this past year because I genuinely engage with other channels and with my own subscribers. Staying on top of my sub box is hard, but I try to watch as many videos as possible each week, and to leave thoughtful, sincere comments. And without waving my own flag or sounding conceited, this has gotten me noticed by creators of both small and large channels. With the small channels I've made new friends, all around the world. But even with larger channels, I've seen some of my favorite creators recognize me from the comment section as well as across platforms. One of them refers to me by my first name when she replies to my comments on her videos, but my real name is not attached to my YouTube account. So how does she know my name? I engage with her content on Twitter, responding to tweets and retweeting things. Because of my frequent engagement with her content on both platforms she knows me on both. I've had another fave person tell me that she always loves reading my comments on her videos. This is both a fantastic feeling to me as a viewer, knowing my comments are seen and appreciated, but it also works out for me in other ways. The larger channels I support frequently frequently respond to me on YouTube and Twitter. I get replied to and retweeted on Twitter and that exposes my accounts to more people. When you participate and engage, honestly and genuinely, you can significantly increase your own following. 

My "golden rule" of YouTube is "be the kind of subscriber to other channels that you want for your own channel."

4) Do it for the right reasons

People often start YouTube because they want to be the next [insert name of your favorite super popular, multi-million subscriber, YouTuber]. But what they don't stop to think about is that YouTubers like Zoella, for instance, didn't set out to be ZOELLA!!!! Millions of subscribers, product deals, book deals, etc. That's what she built along the way. All those big YouTubers started like the rest of us. With 0 subscribers and making videos because they had a genuine interest. If you start your channel thinking you're going to have a million subscribers and international fame within a year. Good luck. Honestly, I mean that. You've got an uphill battle. I'm not saying I don't have dreams of doing blogging and YouTube full time, that would be brilliant. But in the meantime working hard to build the channel and blog is easy because I really enjoy it. I love filming, editing, engaging in the community. YouTube is like life, it's a marathon, not a sprint, it's about the journey not the destination. You have to do this because you love it, because building a channel takes a lot of time, energy, and effort. If you don't love it, you'll be miserable, and your viewers will notice.

5) Don't spend money on your channel right away

I can't reiterate this enough. Do NOT spend money right away. Start with what you've got. My very first video was done using the built in camera on my computer. Then I started using an old DSLR (it didn't even film in HD), because I already owned it. All I bought was a tripod, an SD card, and an extra battery for my camera. I vlogged on my iPhone 6. When I started borrowing my mom's newer DSLR I bought spare batteries for that. But I didn't spend a large amount of money on my channel until I bought my Olympus Pen camera in October, about six months after I started my channel. I waited a long time and I saved up my money and I put a lot of thought into how I would invest in my channel. I knew I loved vlogging but was getting tired of using my phone. I also had a trip coming up. So I decided I wanted a new camera specifically for vlogging. I did a lot of research to find the best deal and looked at a lot of reviews to make my choice. What you choose to spend your money on will be different. You might start off filming on your phone and want to upgrade to a DSLR. You might have a good camera but decide you want really good editing software. But you won't know any of this until you've made a bunch of videos and gone through the full creative practice, learning all the pros and cons of your current tech situation. So take your time, make your videos, save your pennies, and then slowly start investing.

6) Don't compare!

When you compare yourself you only set yourself up for disappointment. You will never know the full story behind someone else's channel or success. You don't see the work they put into behind the camera. It's fine to be inspired by other channels but try to stay focused on your own path. Enjoy your journey. Don't compare your work to someone who's been doing this for longer than you. You're still building and growing as a creator. I get inspired and motivated by other channels but I don't sit around feeling sorry for myself because my numbers aren't as big as theirs.

7) Celebrate the milestones but don't caught up in the numbers

You should absolutely pay attention to the milestones your channel reaches and celebrate those moments. You've earned those subscribers and views. And if a video gets a higher than usual amount of views or likes, you need to be paying attention to that. If that video is something you can replicate, you might want to consider that. I like celebrating the milestones because they're an important part of this journey. I didn't think I'd have 100 subscribers in a year, and I had that many in only a couple months. So that was a big deal for me and I definitely celebrated. But I didn't get upset when I took almost twice as long to get the next 100. 

8) Set realistic goals

This relates back to #4, if you think you're going to have a million subscribers in 1 year, you're not really paying attention to how YouTube works. But if you set goals in small increments and put in the time and effort to your channel you'll notice that you will start hitting milestones. Setting goals and pushing yourself to put out quality content is definitely worth doing, just make sure you're being realistic with those goals, or you're only setting yourself up for disappointment.

9) Track your growth

This is something I wish I'd done from the beginning. I have dates or at least date estimates for some of my milestones, but there are so many numbers and dates that just passed me by and I have no record of them. Your channel might take a long time to grow or it could grow quickly, either way, keep track of your subscriber number, channel view count, revenue (if you monetize your videos), watch time/retention, etc. Get to know the analytics page of your channel. Don't obsess or get sidetracked by these numbers, it can make you a bit crazy if you look at them too much, but get in the habit of writing them down every month so you can see how much/fast your channel is growing. These numbers can also help you with setting those realistic goals I was just talking about.

10) Have fun!

People have commented that they don't understand how I've managed to keep up with my channel in the middle of my portfolio review, reading for my comp exam and then the final prep of comp exam. But the truth is filming, editing, and uploading videos is what kept me sane in the middle of all my PhD work. You have to enjoy doing YouTube. If you don't, if it just feels like a chore, then why bother? If your heart's not into it, your audience will notice. We all can tell when someone doesn't actually care about their content. You're not going to have instant internet fame overnight or massive success and product deals in a month, it takes time and energy and even then you still might not be a YouTube "start". So you have to do it for the love of it and for the creativity of making videos. You have to enjoy it and have fun with it. If you're not, take a break. Your audience will understand and your true subscribers will still be there. Let them know approximately when you'll be back and maybe keep sharing your existing content on your Twitter or Instagram so you can still be gaining new followers. Recharge your batteries (figuratively and literally lol) and come back in a better, happier place to make new content. For me, I needed to keep doing YouTube during the stress of my exams, but some people need a break from YouTube. Figure out what you need and find a way to work around it. You, and your audience, will enjoy things a whole lot more if you are actually happy with the content you are creating.

11) Don't stop learning

I follow a lot of YouTube channels geared towards creators, I also read blogs and listen to podcasts about building your channel, your Instagram, using cameras, building your audience and your brand. I have a "don't stop learning" attitude towards most things in my life, school, work, my personal life, etc. I know I don't know everything, but I also know that knowledge is power. So the more knowledge I can get, the better. There are so many aspects to building a strong YouTube channel, I don't think you can ever know everything there is to know because the platform is always growing and changing. So you need to be keeping up with that and trying to learn as much as possible. I also learn a lot from looking at the big channels I follow. How are they writing their description box content? What kind of disclaimers do they use? How do they interact with their subscribers? How do they use their other social platforms like Twitter or Instagram? The big channels are big for a reason, they treat their channels and blogs like a business, so what business practices do I see them using and how can I adapt that to my own use? I try to challenge myself to learn a new skill or business/media practice every month or so, that way I'm not staying too static and getting too comfortable.

12) Be yourself! It's the one thing you can do better than anyone else!

This is the most important lesson. And one that I've seen too many small YouTubers not pay attention to. Over the past year I've seen soooooooooo many small channels that are clearly trying to be like the big channels they idolize. That impulse is natural, and it's always good to be inspired by other people, but you have to find a way to adapt that inspiration into something that feels natural to your own personality. You audience doesn't want to watch you copy someone else, they want to watch you. The channels that I love the most (both big and small channels) are the ones that are 100% authentically themselves. With very few exceptions, for the most part when we click subscribe it's because there's something about the personality of the channel we are watching that we fall in love with, that YouTuber just "clicks" with our own personality someway. I can tell you, for every channel I follow, what it is about that person that made me click subscribe. And in each case it's something that's unique to that person. There might be similarities between the channels I follow but it still all comes down to the personality of that creator. Copying someone is not only unethical it's also incredibly boring. So just be yourself. You'll feel a lot better about your content and your audience will love you more for it. There's only one you in this world, have faith in yourself. It really is your biggest asset in building your channel. 

Thanks for reading!


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Do I Ever Regret My Theatre Degree?

Shakespeare's Globe in London. Every theatre lover/student dreams of visiting here.
I often get interesting responses when I start talking about my educational background. Since my current work is all being done in an English program, most of the other grad students and academics I meet have come from an English studies background or other similar academic background. So when people learn that my undergrad degree is a Theatre Arts degree and that I spent several years as a costume designer I usually get interesting looks. And sometimes those reactions make me stop and think about my past educational experiences. Was it all a waste? I'm in such a different field now, would I be further along in my life and my career right now if I'd just majored in English as an undergrad? Was getting a theatre degree a mistake and do I regret that choice?

No. Nope. Not at all. Not ever.

And here's why...

I know 110% that I would not be the person I am today without my experiences in theatre. I also probably wouldn't be doing the research I'm doing if I hadn't taken the very specific path I've taken to get here. And that path started with theatre. First as an actor, then as a costume designer, which was born primarily out of an interest in costume/fashion theory (even though I didn't think of it that way at the time). After awhile I started to realize I liked the research part of being a costume designer more than I liked the actual sewing, long hours, and sh*t pay. You know the pay is bad when academia looks like a better choice financially. (Only academics will get that income joke.) 

But there's not a day that goes by as a junior scholar/college instructor that I don't thank 18 year old me for choosing theatre as an undergrad degree or my amazing parents for allowing me to get a theatre degree. They always supported my choice, their only caveat was that they wanted me to go to grad school and earn at least an MA so that I could teach at the college level if I wanted. I think they were ahead of the curve at the millennium (I graduated high school in 1999), degree inflation wasn't yet a thing and the economy was still several years off from it's spectacular meltdown, but I think they already were seeing that a BA by itself wasn't getting people as far as it used to. So I had it in my head from an early age that I would be getting an MA degree. Now look at me, I'm getting a PhD! That was certainly never the plan, but I don't think it would have been even remotely a possibility if I hadn't already had my parents stressing the importance of grad school in general.

Though I'm not in theatre anymore, it's still very much a career path I could end up back on. With my PhD I can easily see myself working for a theatre company doing writing/PR/marketing/social media. But even more than that there are several skills that I first learned in my undergrad degree that I still use today. So I thought I'd share those today. Maybe you are/were a theatre student once and feel like it was a waste or maybe you're a parent who's kid wants to study theatre and you feel like it's not the "smart" choice. Hopefully you'll see that a theatre degree is much more flexible than you think.

Outside the Guildhall in London. This is NOT where I studied lol! But I totally wish I had.

1. Performance

I'm not an actor anymore, but it still feels like it sometimes. Less so currently since I teach online. But when I teach face to face, every class period is a performance. My training as an actor taught me how to use my body, use the stage (or the classroom), project my voice as well as play with volume, tone, and inflection to keep the audience interested, and how to improvise, a very useful skill when you teach college freshman who are the ultimate hecklers. During my first year as a TA in my current degree I had to be observed in the classroom. After the class the professor who had been observing me raved about my ability to move around the classroom, the way I used my voice to keep my students engaged, the way I adapted to different directions the students took the class, etc. My response? "Thanks, I learned all that during my theatre degree." I don't think I'd be half as confident in a classroom if not for my training as an actor. My performance background is also super helpful for getting through class presentations and conferences. I always get nerves and jitters but I honestly don't have any serious issues with public speaking. I'm very grateful for that.

Me, presenting a paper on Fashion Bloggers at an academic conference. This former actor has no problem with public speaking. I get nervous but it's still a lot of fun!

2. Research Skills

Whether you're an actor, a designer, a director, a writer, whatever, you have to be able to research the project you're working on. As an actor I had to research the script and the character I was playing, I had to understand the world of the play and how that world impacted my character. As a costume designer I had to research the script, the historical period the production would be set in or was being inspired by, I had to understand all the characters and how they interacted and how I could portray a variety of factors (weather, year, geographic location, psychological state, etc) through their clothing. There was soooooooooo much research that went into every production, my costume bibles were always half research, which was why I usually needed a 3 inch binder to fit it all. But through all that I learned how to use a variety of databases and other research sources to learn everything I needed to learn. Library searches were nothing new to me by the time I started grad school. And most of the research skills I have now may have been improved throughout my grad school experiences but they were first learned during my time in theatre.

3. Writing Skills

Along with that research comes a lot of writing. And in a number of different genres. During my undergrad I wrote everything from short answer character and script analyses to 20+ page research papers for my theatre history classes. There were countless resumes plus play and script reviews. A lot of my classmates would grumble and complain and say they hate writing and that's why they're actors but I always that that was such a ridiculous response. I tell my theatre students now to learn to like writing. It can help you get a job down the road. Most people pursuing a career in theatre have to be more than an actor or designer. You have to find your "and". I was an actor AND a costume designer. I know people who are actors and playwrights, actors and directors, writers and directors, directors and designers. The more skills you can bring to a company, the more likely you are to be hired. You can act AND you can write copy for the program and press releases? Hired. Ok, maybe it's not quite so simple, and maybe I'm biased being an English major, but I think having strong writing skills makes you automatically more hirable to anyone. Just like with my research skills, grad school has improved my writing skills, but they were first cultivated during my theatre degree.

4. Flexibility/Adaptability

When you work in theatre you have to be flexible and be able to adapt to a variety of situations. Your job is constantly changing, often you're contracted for one show at a time, or maybe a whole season, but the permanent theatre jobs are few and far between and usually someone has to die for them to open up. And that's not hyperbole, because most theatre people don't save up enough to retire, so they really do stay in that job until they die. It's a tough world. And one that I didn't really have the energy to deal with, but it definitely taught me how to be flexible and adapt. It also teaches you how to problem solve, especially when I was a costume designer. Every day brought new challenges that I had to find solutions to. Academia requires those skills as well, so thankfully I'd already mastered them, more or less, by the time I got to grad school.

Costuming requires problem solving, math, and Starbucks on a daily basis.

5. Sociability 

Theatre is an incredibly social discipline. You don't work in a bubble. You work with dozens of other people and have to learn how to collaborate and be part of a team. There's definitely room to be an introvert, goodness knows I'm definitely incredibly introverted, but you also have to be social and work as part of a group. I do miss that aspect. You can be so much more isolated in academia. I go days and weeks without talking to any of my colleagues, I'm certainly not stretching my social skills right now. So when an event like a conference comes up, I'm always so glad for my background in theatre because those social skills are still there to help me get through all the introductions and networking. I'll never be an extroverted social butterfly, but my theatre background keeps me from lurking in the corners hoping no one will try to talk to me.

6. Interdisciplinary

A lot of people won't get a theatre degree, but a lot of kids will be interested in studying theatre in high school and joining a drama club if there is one. And I fully support that. Don't discourage your teenage from exploring theatre during secondary school (middle or high school). You learn so many skills in theatre that can prepare you for a wide range of careers. Plus, extra curricular activities like drama club look great on college applications. Theatre is far more interdisciplinary than people think and can prepare young adults for a wide variety of careers while at the same time giving them strong social skills, increased responsibility and time management skills (rehearsal schedules are intense!), and improve their reading, writing, and research abilities. High school drama classes often fill massive gaps that the rest of their writing and humanities classes are leaving. Among my freshman English students, the ones that succeed the most are the ones who have a background in drama or any other art (music, dance, speech/debate, art, etc.). These classes often build on skills they are learning in their required classes and as a result put them ahead of their classmates who aren't involved in the arts. And something I always found interesting was that out of all the kids in my high school drama class, only a handful of us (6 at most) got theatre degrees. The rest went into a wide range of career paths. There are teachers, MBA grads, artists, people working in IT, marketing, finance, and other corporate jobs, the list is endless. We all have done something slightly different. But if their experience is anything like mine, I'm sure at least of few of the skills they use in their current jobs were first formed during their time in theatre.

So those are just some of the big skills I first learned through my time in theatre that I still use even though I'm in a very different career field. So do I regret my theatre degree? Not a bit. Because that degree got me started in my adult life. And the skills I learned had so much transferability it's amazing more people don't get into theatre for at least a short period. I think it should be required in high school. And I think everyone should take at least one theatre class in uni, whether it's an acting class or playwriting, design, dramaturgy, etc. Theatre, and the arts in general, make you a more well rounded person. And it's never too late. If you've always wanted to give it a try, find a community college or local workshop in acting or writing or whatever interest you. Audition for a community play. Find out who does the costumes or sets for your local community theatre and offer to volunteer (I always bent over backwards to find community volunteers to help me in the costume shop, whether they knew how to sew or not).

And if you are currently studying theatre and struggling to justify your choice to friends and family, just send them a link to this post and tell them that an English PhD student/uni instructor says her theatre degree was one of the best choices she ever made and that she credits all her current success to that degree. :)