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Four weeks offline: is that possible as an entrepreneur?

At the end of the memorable 2020, I decided to go offline for a while. To take a break, reflect and most of all to 'play' again instead of working. From mid-December to mid-January I didn’t use social media, (almost) didn’t check my mail and didn’t do any client work. But is that even possible, especially as an entrepreneur? In this blog I'll tell you how these offline weeks went by!!

Nienke Vletter in hangmat in Italie
A long time ago: offline during a yoga holiday in Italy

My love-hate relationship with social media

How is your relationship with social media? Love it or hate it? I'm mostly on the love it side. I love to follow inspiring people from all over the world. To easily connect with other creative entrepreneurs and followers whom I otherwise might have never met. Instagram is also one of the reasons I can do what I do. My Instagram is the place where I share my work and therefor get more assignments, I promote my courses and workshops there and I collaborate with great brands.

At the same time, I also feel the downsides. The extremely addictive effect of Instagram and Facebook. Constantly checking your phone. The time it takes to keep social media up to date. Diving into new features every time. Responding to all the DM's and emails. And then there are those moments when all that inspiration turns into insecurity. The feeling that you are not as good / talented / successful as all those others online seem to be. Yes, I too still suffer from this regularly.

That's why I decided to go offline. For 4 weeks. No Instagram stories, no Facebook posts, no responding to DM's and no checking other people's social media. Simultaneously I turned on the out of office reply of my email. There I wrote that I only checked my email once a week and did not do any work. No quotations, no proposals, no designs. I only allowed myself to work on my own creative projects..

Day 0: "What will I miss?!”

I already made this decision a month before, but the day I shared it, it suddenly felt like quite a big thing. Am I going to miss out on important things? I won't see what my creative colleagues and friends are doing for 4 weeks. I don't see the beautiful results and sweet messages from my workshop students. Maybe some fun assignments will come along that I'll miss?

What helped me against this FOMO? At the same time I also started the unlimitedme course by Charlotte van 't Wout (highly recommended by the way!). One of the things you had to do - after reflecting on last year - was writing down three things you wanted to stop doing and what you would trust on instead. So I wrote down, "I will stop checking my phone constantly and trust that I won't miss anything."

And what if there was something that I did miss? Then I'd really have something to catch up on with friends instead of the usual response, "Oh yeah, I already saw it on Instagram."

Day 1: Digital detox

During the weeks that I took off from client work and social media, I had decided to still go to my studio. That's where 90% of my art materials are and I have all the space I need to play, paint and draw. Also, my former workspace at home had been claimed by my boyfriend, who had to work from home due to the new lockdown.

I biked to my studio in the morning, turned on the Christmas lights in our hallway (which we had decorated together with all the freelancers there) and thought to myself, "This is a fun Insta story". Oh no, wait...I'm offline!

This happened several times during the rest of the day. Now I really noticed how it has become a habit to continuously think 'this could be an IG story'. I discussed it with partner-in-crime Anne. We originally started using Instagram because it was fun to share our hobby. Nowadays, it is no longer just a social channel for us, but also the most important marketing tool for our business. A channel we find very valuable, but which also means that often you are 'on' all day long.

Every time I lost focus for a moment, I was tempted to reach for my phone. It has become such an automatic response, even if I had looked at my phone just 5 minutes before. A standard routine of Whatsapp, Instagram and checking my email.

And do you recognize this? Grabbing your phone to check something online, but instead see a message, fall into a Facebook rabbit hole and putting your phone away half an hour later? Only to remember again that you actually needed to check something? This really was a detox and it was going to take longer than a few days.

Week 1 - Time to play!

I cleaned up my studio, sorted out all my materials and sharpened all my pencils. And then I asked myself: now what...? I didn't have anything on my to do list and that took some getting used to after a year of working fulltime. But what a great feeling!

I decided to get my acrylic paints out and started messing around. Not entirely without reason: 'making a mess' was one of the assignments I learned during the Illustratie Expedition from Femke Veltkamp. Meanwhile, Femke has asked me to join her ‘Exploration course’ as a mentor. So I decided to do the assignments of that course myself again.

How insightful it was to do this again! With all the lessons I've learned in the meantime and the classes I’ve hosted myself, I have a different view at the assignments. I can also put the feedback from back then in perspective now. I highly recommend this to everyone: it is so useful to go back to the basics every now and then.

I still find it difficult to play and create something without striving for a result. Nowadays we are so used to working goal-oriented. Even when I'm not drawing with a goal in mind, there's always that little voice asking, “Is this something to share on Instagram?”. Before you know it I'm busy taking pictures, thinking of some text to go with it and replying to reactions. But now I was not ‘allowed’ to share anything, and that was actually very liberating. Did my sketch fail? No worries! It's all part of the creative process. A few days in a row I was completely in the flow and enjoyed it immensely!

Week 2: Ab-so-lu-te-ly nothing.

While I was writing my yearly reflection, I realized that I didn’t took a vacation all year. In May I was supposed to go to the Scottish Highlands with my boyfriend, but due to COVID that didn't happen. We went away on a few weekend trips instead. But because of the lockdown, the nice weather and our lovely roof terrace we did not necessarily feel we needed a holiday. So I just kept on working. In October I started a sort of final sprint that lasted until just before Christmas. With my own online courses and illustration assignments, murals and workshops for clients. By the end of the year I even had to disappoint a few people that I really didn't have time for any last-minute jobs.

After a year in which COVID reduced my business revenue to almost zero in the second quarter, all the assignments were very welcome and I ended the year with a good profit. I am proud of how I am doing as an entrepreneur, but felt I needed a break.

Even when your work is fun, you need to take a break from it.

The issue if your hobby / passion is also your work? It's so much fun that sometimes you forget it's work. But once in a while you really need to take a break. That's why, after a relaxing Christmas weekend, I stayed home for 1.5 weeks. I (almost ;) finished Netflix, read three books in one week and went for nice walks with a friend or with my boyfriend. Fortunately - besides working hard - I am also a champion in enjoying life and doing nothing.

After a very fun New Years with friends, I slept in every day and watched endless YouTube videos about oil painting. Because on the day of New Year's Eve I received a beautiful Van Gogh set from my mother-in-law. More than 15 years old, but still completely unused! It had been on my wish list for some time to try oil painting, but I just didn't make time for it. With two more offline weeks ahead of me, I now had no excuse!

Week 3: Feel the addiction

In the third week I unfortunately had to do some work. The VAT taxes had to be submitted by my accountants. I had to check my mailbox for this and every time I opened my e-mail, I also checked if nothing urgent had come in (which, of course, was not the case). In addition, I always use Whatsapp several times a day in my private life. The result? I noticed that my phone was constantly next to me again. A habit that I still want to get rid of, but that is very persistent.

What I did learn?

I noticed that I really liked going through my email at a fixed time. It was so much more efficient to get rid of all my mail at once than to have myself be distracted every 10 minutes by the notification of a new email.

After this offline break, my intention is to check my email two or three set times a day and really turn it off in between. I also want to stop the habit of always having Web Whatsapp open on my laptop while I'm working. If it is really urgent, people will call. Those Whatsapp messages can easily wait a few hours, so I will train myself to leave my phone in my bag during work.

Havng fun making mistakes

At the end of the week I finally got to work with my brushes and oil paints. I started with an online course and in the first module I painted a still life of a lemon. Apparently I used way too much oil and turpentine for mixing, because the paint was still wet after a few days. Oops!

I didn’t mind the error though, because by making this mistake, I learned what did work. This happens to be something I also always tell my workshop participants ;-).

It was great fun to work with a material that is completely new to me. And the underlying lessons about color values, mixing pigments and light versus dark are also great reminders for my illustration work.

Week 4: Playtime!

I started the last Monday morning of my offline weeks by painting instead of grabbing my laptop first. I always find it very tempting to start a workday with my to do's to get them out of my head. As a result, creative time is often neglected, because during the day there are always other things coming up in between. While that creative time - especially for me as an illustrator - is also very necessary to keep developing myself. So from now, the first thing I wanna do every morning is play in my sketchbook for half an hour. I'm going to try to make this a new habit.

Four weeks offline: is it possible? Before I know it, the four weeks had passed. My company didn't go bankrupt, my customers didn’t get angry, my followers didn't leave me. In fact, most people reacted very positive (and often a little jealously) to my offline break! Did I miss things? I'm sure I did. But I gained a lot of time, calmness and joy. And I think that is - both personally and as an entrepreneur - the best investment you can make!

Will I do things differently from now on? I hope so, even though I know how stubborn the 'screen addiction' is. On Instagram, I'm going to happily post and follow others on a basis again, but I don't want to be ‘ON’ all day anymore. The creative flow that is so valuable only happens when you’re not constantly distracted. So being online a few times a day: absolutely. Going offline again and back to work with focus? Yes, please! The world can wait a little bit, because most of the time it is busy minding itself ;-).

Do you ever go offline?

Not just for an hour, but for a few days or even a few weeks? What helps you when you do this? I am very curious: share your experience in the comments!

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