Last month, I was featured talking about my career change in the latest issue of CF Life magazine from the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, so I thought now would be a great time to write an update on what has changed since I left a high-pressure, full-time job last summer.
Before: a recap
For nearly two years I worked for ‘the biggest Independent Creative Agency Network in the World’. My job in marketing enabled me to work with fitness day-in, day-out at a brilliant company with brilliant people, brilliant clients and brilliant projects.
I loved it and if I didn’t have cystic fibrosis, I would have easily worked the long hours, fuelled by passion. But the reality was that 2am finishes and long weekends were preventing me from doing all of the things that kept me healthy for 26 years: exercise, good nutrition, good sleep and adherence to all of my medications.
I felt that I couldn’t practise what I preach and that I was lying to myself about how highly I prioritised my health.
So, I quit.
After: what my life looks like now
I’ve been freelance for 8 months now and I’ve loved every minute. I’m also silently quite proud of myself for not ending up homeless. Pat on the back.
I am working on so many hugely rewarding projects and have many more in the pipeline. So, what do I do now?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer at Pactster, an online gym for people with specific health needs, currently focusing heavily on empowering people with cystic fibrosis to exercise more. I work in a passionate, inspiring team dedicated to making social impact. There’s not a day that I don’t want to work.
I’m an associate lecturer in Marketing at Anglia Ruskin University, helping to develop new modules for distance learning courses, and tutoring on them. I’m also a mentor to students on one of the university’s programmes and am passionate about attending events and guest speaking when I can.
I’ve qualified as a personal trainer and work with other companies in the health and fitness space as a marketing consultant. I speak at events and I write articles.
But for people who aren’t in my industry or who don’t have experience of working freelance, here’s what that means in terms of my working week…
I work from home a lot. Or a coworking space. Sometimes a coffee shop, like today. Caffe Nero seems to be the best spot to get my blogging brain in gear.
Some days I’ll work morning through to evening engrossed in the same project, in the same spot, like when I’m developing courses for the university and have textbooks piled up to my ears.
Another day, I might start with a meeting, head to a yoga class, work from a coworking space on a variety of smaller projects, have a couple of team calls, reply to some emails and then go to a networking event in the evening, before heading home.
I love the variety, but it takes some fairly meticulous planning. I rely on the calendar and notes app (for to do lists) on my iPhone every single day.
So, I’m happy. Really happy. I’ve managed to combine the things that I love and the things that I’m really good at to build an exciting career that gives me the balance that I need.
But has my health improved?
The first big change that I experienced after quitting my job was a shift in my mental health.
Stress immediately subsided.
I no longer felt anxious and overworked. I no longer had guilt about missing treatments.
I felt courageous and empowered. I felt decisive and in control.
I felt really positive about changing my lifestyle so that it was no longer in conflict with my health.
That said, working freelance and being part of a remote team isn’t always easy. But the challenges are very different and far less damaging to a healthy mindset than I experienced before.
On one hand, working from home is great because I spend less time and money commuting and exposing myself to pollution, I’m incredibly productive, and I have the flexibility that I need to be able to do treatments and exercise at a time that works best for my body.
On the other hand, it can be lonely. Especially when I’m working on a big project, I can easily go a whole day without speaking with another human face-to-face. There isn’t anyone to bounce ideas off, to joke with, to tell me that it’s time to stop working or to prompt me to eat.
Despite knowing that I have lots of supportive people in my life, there are days where I’ve really struggled with a lack of human contact, especially if there’s a day where things aren’t going quite to plan.
I try to counter this by heading to a coworking space at least one day a week and having regular updates with my remote teams. I try to go to a lot of events (Eventbrite has been my saviour), to the gym and to meet friends for catch ups (something that almost never happened when I was working in my last job).
I’ll also travel back to see family once a month and stay at least one night. It’s easier now than it used to be as I can work from anywhere so long as I have my Mac and access to wifi.
I try to make regular plans to ensure that I surround myself with people that lift me up. I'm one of those people that just loves company. I love to have someone to tell about the little things that happen throughout the day. But I also know that I’m responsible for my own happiness and shouldn't rely on others to make me feel better. Over the past few years I’ve grown happier in my own company, which is really empowering.
I also think that it’s really important to keep a routine. This is tricky for me because my days vary so hugely, but I always wake up and go to bed around the same time and stick to my morning and evening routines.
Also, I get dressed. Over winter I worked in my dressing gown. A lot. Partly to keep warm and cosy. Partly because I wanted to get stuck into work as soon as possible and getting dressed slowed me down. Now, even on days where I don’t have plans to go out, I’ll get dressed in gym clothes, which is good for my mindset (making me feel like a functioning human) as well as increasing the likelihood and ease of heading to the gym later in the day. Occasionally I’ll just wear my dressing gown over the top...
My physical health was a little slower to stabilise after leaving the corporate world.
In fact, my lung function hasn’t returned to where it was at the clinic appointment prior to the one where I decided to quit my job. At least, not consistently. I still don’t feel as though I’m as stable as I was a couple of years ago. But I feel like I have the opportunity to be if only I can keep this same level of determination and motivation.
It’s a bit disheartening when you don’t see the numbers that you want on tests, but I’ll never stop working hard to be able to squeeze out just an extra 20 or 30ml of air each time I do a pulmonary function test.
I truly believe that it can be done and that I will see improvements if I stick to my treatments and get comfortable with being uncomfortable in the gym. That’s where the change happens.
Lung function aside, I feel better in myself. I haven’t been ill (despite people with colds and flu surrounding me over winter) and my body is strong. 100kg squat and deadlift strong. And this week at the gym someone asked me if I was training for athletics. That’s a compliment that I’m happy to accept!
In terms of exercise, I’m able to do a lot more in a week, and get a lot more variety too.
If I’m out and about, I’ll try to find a class that I can go to nearby where I’m based that day, or perhaps I’ll squeeze in a session on Pactster or a good stretch in the evening. If I’m working from home, I’ll head to the gym at the quietest times of day (usually mid-morning or late afternoon) and allow myself as much time as I need to feel like I’ve challenged my body and achieved something that’s made me feel good. I’ve learnt to adopt a flexible approach to training that can be scaled up or down depending on what time I have and where I am.
I’m working at lot at the moment on my posture and thoracic mobility. I feel like this was hugely affected by previously high levels of stress and started to take a toll on my breathing. But I’m working hard to correct that now.
I stick to my treatments, I eat well and I generally feel much more relaxed.
How did I make it work?
After reading my piece in CF Life magazine, some of you messaged me with some more specific questions on the logistics of transitioning away from a full-time job.
1. "Did you look into any other options other than giving up work completely?"
I thought about exploring the possibility of going part-time where I was, as I would have loved to have stayed there, but there are a few reasons why I didn’t think that this was the best option:
- The nature of the work that I was doing was incredibly demanding, fast-paced and project-based. It would have been impossible to step away for a couple of days, allowing a project to stop moving forward. Equally, it would have been difficult and unfair for me to keep handing over to colleagues, and then expecting them to hand back and update me a couple of days later.
- Even after numerous discussions with colleagues about the importance of me leaving work ‘on time’ (if such a thing exists in that industry!), no one seemed to be able to help make that happen. There’s nothing to say that I wouldn’t also end up staying late if I was working part time (either full or half days).
- I just felt like I needed a clean break. I felt like I needed to draw a line in the sand and step away completely from the environment that I was in and hit ‘reset’ on my health. Only by stepping away completely could I put all of my efforts into my health and focus on working out what routines and habits truly work for me.
2. "How did you feel about giving up work in terms of financials?"
There’s no denying that I wasn’t a little bit nervous on this front. But I knew that I had enough savings to see me through for a couple of months. After that, if things weren’t working out, I felt that I’d at least be in a better place in terms of my health (physical and mental) to begin looking for another form of employment.
3. "How did you go about finding something more appropriate work wise, after you had given up your previous job?"
For years, I have put a lot of effort into taking on projects (such as this blog) and networking, to make connections, build my profile and expertise, and also just understand what types of work were out there. I felt that I’d be able to find at least a few paid projects that I could piece together to make a living. I knew that if I needed to, I could take on a bit of freelance writing work, or perhaps use my fitness qualifications to pick up a few classes at a gym.
My main roles (in marketing - as a 'doer' and as a lecturer) came from having existing relationships with people who knew where my passions and skills lied. When opportunities came up, I could then have open conversations about how I could get involved.
Other work, like consulting, writing and speaking projects, came about mostly through word of mouth, although there were a few times that I was in conversation with a person/company and suggested a collaboration. Whenever I hear about someeone doing something really cool or a company that is doing something awesome, something that really speaks to me, I have such an urge to learn about it, to speak to the people involved and to get involved myself if I can. I just find it really inspiring and am always looking for ways to learn new things and make positive impact. That's just the way I am and it seems to serve me well!
I understand that the job options I've mentioned are specific to my skills and industry but I think the same principles apply to anyone: _Recognise your areas of expertise and interest, and identify a niche_Build a portfolio _Network as much as possible_Be enthusiastic and passionate about what you do and tell people what you want to do (people will genuinely want to help you if you can demonstrate this openly and honestly)
I work one-to-one with people to offer private coaching on these areas, so if you’d like to chat more, get in touch.
4. "What specifically did you look for in your new role that was missing from the job that you gave up?"
My new role is really more new roles (plural). Part of the reason that I wanted to work on multiple projects I love variety and find that the insights I have from one project are very often useful for another. For example, as a marketing lecturer who is actively working in the industry, I always have case studies to draw from and examples of how theory applies in practise that will be helpful to my students. I also wanted some time to pursue personal projects, like being able to write articles on this blog more often.
Mainly though, I looked for flexibility. Working on a small team with people who understand my condition, who enable (encourage!) remote working and flexible hours, and who operate in health, fitness and education sectors has been especially beneficial.
_If you have any further questions, or have a career- or health-related story that you’d like to share with me, please feel free to pop it in the comments below or get in touch with me on social media @nataliejohanna on Twitter and Instagram
I'd also like to say a huge thank you for all of the incredible support that I've had over the last year from so many of you. Thank you!!