Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

January 2022

35 ways to improve your life without really trying

In my last blog post [here] I wrote about four possibly life-changing intentions I have for the year ahead. They involved time, money and the work I choose to accept. I mentioned a fifth intention and that’s what this post is all about. I thought it deserved an entry of its own.

Self care as a freelancer

On the face of it, it isn’t work-related and has little to do with creating ELT materials but in actual fact it’s got everything to do with those things. Because it’s all about the practices I’ve chosen to adopt for my own well being which will have a knock on effect on everything I do, including, and perhaps especially, my work.

Keeping it real

I recently read an inspiring article, put together by a team of writers, called ‘100 ways to improve your life without really trying’. I loved it for its simple, common sense and, more importantly, do-able ideas. I shared this link with friends on social media and in the course of the discussions that followed I said I’d write my own version. You can read the article I refer to here.

Do It Yourself

Just as I found reading the original article uplifting and motivating, I also found planning my own version, thinking about realistic and do-able small changes, therapeutic and inspiring. So I’d urge anyone who might be contemplating writing their own, to do just that. You don’t have to write 100 or even 50, any number will do. How about choosing your age as I did (or didn’t) and going with that as a number?

My list: not in order of importance

1. Drink a glass of water before doing anything else in the morning. You could pour it the night before to and leave it on your bedside table, covered, so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up. Drinking water is good for lots of reasons. I’ve also recently found out that it’s better to sip and not gulp it down, so that’s worth noting, I think.

2. Set an alarm when you start working at your computer, that can act as a stretch notifier.  When the alarm goes off, stretch as many muscles as possible, including facial muscles.

3. Focus your eyesight on something that isn’t a screen every now and then. It doesn’t need to be for long, but it’s definitely good for your eyes. An outdoor scene is ideal, especial if you’ve got something nice view to contemplate.

4. Have a plant in a place where you can see it while you work. It doesn’t need to be big or fancy and you don’t need to be green-fingered. If the plant doesn’t survive, chuck it out and replace it with a new one. Nobody’s judging you.  A cactus is an easy plant to care for though.

5. Keep a notebook handy where you can make a note of any minor achievements each day, as they occur. This can be anything from managing not to get angry at the news or meeting a deadline. Acknowledging these things is what it’s all about. We’re usually much better at acknowledging the cock-ups.

6. Find a podcast that suits you – there really is something for everyone. Take some time out to relax listen to it. You could do this with your eyes closed, just to rest them or you could do it while you potter. I find a podcast helps distract me from work so that when I return to it, I see things with fresh eyes. And I usually flip between crime, science and literature – whatever floats your boat.

7. Make yourself a happy place in your home. Do whatever needs to be done for it to be a place you feel good in. Things that might help are a scented candle, a comfy blanket, a nice view, a favourite picture, a photo album, a lamp – anything that gives you comfort. Then make an effort to hang out in your happy place at least a couple of times a day.

8. Read! Books can be used as all kinds of therapy. They can take you to new worlds that make you forget the one you’re in for a while, if that’s what you need. They can inspire you with new ideas, teach you new things, help you understand couldn’t get your head around. And of course lots more.

9. Declutter your real desktop and your virtual desktop. You’ll benefit from the practical effects and the mental effects.

10. Unsubscribe from annoying emails that you keep getting. Set aside a block of time specifically for this. It will be time well-invested.

11. Go outside whatever the weather. Really. Invest in some waterproofs, a woolly hat or whatever else is appropriate. Even if you don’t feel like going out, you’ll be glad you went when you get back. Even a walk around the block will have its benefits.

12. Doodle! Get a sketchpad and some coloured pens. Don’t put them away in a drawer. Keep them somewhere handy, maybe in your happy place. Everyone can be an artist. And nobody needs to see your creations. Unless you want to share them of course.

13. Learn how to do something new now and then. I don’t mean big things like learning how to speak a brand new foreign language. Find something that’s useful or interesting for you. I’m thinking of learning a bit of sign language, for example.

14. Watch some daytime telly! Seriously. That whole idea that says watching Netflix at night is fine but watching it during the day isn’t, is just plain wrong. As long as you meet your commitments, you should be able to do relaxing stuff whenever you like.

15. Get hold of some children’s drawings and frame them. There’s always something uplifting about children’s art. If you don’t have children of your own, ask the child of a friend or neighbour to do you a picture. It’s my bet they’d be more than happy to comply.

16. Try a new tea or influsion blend, even if you’ve already got your favourites. I mean, you could find a new favourite and we can’t have too much of a good thing. Especially if it’s a healthy thing.

17. Take some time to think about where you’d like to be in a few years’ time. Not just geographically of course. How can we follow our dreams if we don’t first consider what they might be? And while we’re on the subject, dream big. Be bold.

18. If there’s a club or group you’d like to join but it doesn’t exist, start one up! This can be F2F or online and could be anything work-related, health-related, educational or just fun. It’s a good way to meet like-minded people.

19. Most of us get a buzz when we do some home improvements or even move home. But we can replicate that in small ways by giving a single space in a room a makeover. I recently discovered you can get some really amazing wallpaper these days and you don’t even have to use paste because it’s self-adhesive. I’m in love with some verdigris oxidized copper paper. Google it!

20. Make (and then share) a cake! If you don’t think you can, you’re wrong. Anybody can. Just add ‘easy’ to a recipe search. If you’re afraid you’ll eat the whole cake, avoid that by sharing it with a neighbour. I’ve done that several times and the reaction has been nice. I mean, how would you react if someone came around with cake?

21. Find an internet page with jokes and fall down the rabbit hole for ten minutes. You’ll need to find the right one, of course. I love dark or absurd humour like Steve Wright’s. His one-liners make me laugh out loud and laughter is good for the soul.  

22. When you’ve enjoyed working with someone on a project, send them a message to tell them just that. When I’ve received such an email, it’s made my day and it really is a small thing.

23. Have a picnic lunch outside even if it’s a workday.  Or it could be a breakfast or dinner. This is something I do regularly and it makes me feel like I’m on holiday, even if I have to get back to my desk afterwards. If it’s cold, just wrap up warm, and take a thermos of tea or coffee.

24. Organise a weekly, or fortnightly trip to see something cultural. If you can get to a real museum or art gallery, great! If you can’t, visit one of the online museums or galleries, either from the comfort of your home or a café or bar. Take notes!

25. Watch an obscure or not-well-known film you wouldn’t normally watch, maybe a foreign film or an old film. There are lots of ways of doing this and thousands of films to choose from.. You could do an internet search with ‘award winning films + [country]. If it turns out you don’t like the film, you can stop watching. But chances are you might getting drawn in and discover a whole new back catalogue to watch. If you don’t know where to start, reach out and ask, especially if you have friends from other countries.

26. Think of something new to learn that seems big but can be broken down into smaller bits. Then practise or learn one bit until you feel you’ve nailed it. After that you can decide whether to move on to the next bit or just abandon it for something else. This can be something cerebral like learning a foreign alphabet or something science-based like the Periodic Table. Or it could be more physical, like Yoga asanas or dance moves.

27. If you work in ELT (or if you don’t), find out more about EDI issues (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion). Find reputable sites with key information and make a note of anything you learn that you didn’t know before. Maybe share that information with somebody else.

28. Find four or five keyboard shortcuts or hacks that could make your life easier. Then make yourself a little card and place it near your computer so that you remember them … until they become second nature.

29. If you live in a place where the night sky is visible, go outside when it’s dark and see what you can see. Check out with a website what’s going to be visible in your area on a particular date. You can even sign up for notifications so you know in advance when something special might be happening. You can do this with the naked eye but you might also like to invest in binoculars or a telescope.

30. Make your own luxury chocolates using the best base chocolate you can afford and your favourite ingredients. Invent new flavours and combinations. I’ve tried this with dark chocolate doing combinations of fresh cherries and sea salt and small chunks of figs with chili pepper. I’m going to try slivers of ripe pear next.

32. Find a local radio station and check out their programme schedule. Then listen in and find out what’s going on in your area. Even the most remote corners of the world have their own radio stations and it’s a brilliant way of finding out all kinds of useful information. I started listening to Radio Valdivielso [here] a few years ago and I’ve even formed a friendship with the presenter and made spot appearances to talk about things as disparate as fracking, growing your own vegetables and Tom Jones. But more importantly I’ve had great advice on the best internet providers, where to buy local produce and all kinds of local laws and social matters.


33. Find out about ergonomics and how you should be sitting at your desk. Most of us get into bad, slouchy habits and while that might not matter right now, It could cause health problems in the future. My friend and fellow ELT freelancer, Julie Moore wrote an excellent blog post [here] about laptop ergonomics. It includes a really useful image, explaining how to position yourself for pain-free posture.


34. Write a ‘to do’ list with some things you want to do, rather than chores or work tasks. This could be a shorter daily list or a longer weekly one. See what works best and keep it realistic.

35. Offer to do something spontaneous for a friend, neighbour or family member. Many of us jump to help when asked but fewer of us actually offer without being prompted. This could be anything from babysitting, walking a dog, helping with some gardening, running an errand, driving them somewhere. Obviously everything depends on the person and what you feel comfortable with (and authorised to do). A nice way of doing this is to make and give the receiver a token stating what you are offering to do.

Over to you!

It would make me happy to think that at least one person reading this blog decides to try one of the things I’ve highlighted for myself in this list. But as I mentioned at the start, writing your own list is a really good thing to do. I’d love to hear from anyone who does this. Happy pondering!

Looking ahead: small changes, big impact

woman with binoculars

It was recently ‘that time of year’, when everyone was looking back at the year that was drawing to a close. It was the perfect time to reflect on achievements or on lessons learnt. I’d intended to do the same but holidays got the better of me, so now, instead of looking back at the past year of ELT writing, I’m looking ahead. I can’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, of course but I do have ‘intentions’. And I think they might be life-changing – in a good way of course. Here are four of them. There’s a fifth, but I’ll save that for another day.

  1. Fewer freebies

In 2022 I’m going to think long and hard before saying ‘Yes’ to free writing work. This might sound mean because it’s good to give back, right? But I already ‘give back’ in a number of ways and over the past few years I’ve had several official voluntary roles that have taken up a lot of my time, and in some cases, prevented me from doing paid work during my work time so subsequently taking away what was supposed to be my free time.

Notice I didn’t say I wouldn’t do any unpaid work. Some things are worth considering because they are for a good cause or because they provide me with an opportunity to connect with teachers and talk about things I feel passionate about.  My work with the ELT Footprint community ticks both of those boxes. [Join us on Facebook here or check out the website here.] I am of the firm belief that everyone should do some voluntary work, at some point. It’s a great way to make connections, try new things and sometimes get a sense of what’s really important and what isn’t.

2a. Fewer working hours

In 2022 I’m going to work fewer hours. I’ve considered how this might work in reality because there are lots of possible set-ups, from regular three- or four-day weeks to taking whole weeks off. I’m keeping my options open for now because as any freelance writer will tell you, we can’t control everything. In fact, we control very little.

For now, in January, I’m working fewer hours each day and taking whole afternoons or mornings off. It’s great because it gives me an opportunity to do other things or just to laze around, watching a series or reading a good book. We should never feel guilty (as I used to) for doing ‘nothing’. As Winnie the Pooh said, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” And he knew a thing or two.

2b. More income

While I plan to cut back on my hours, my idea is also to increase my earnings. While that might sound like an impossible task, it really isn’t. I learnt a lot about working smarter last year. I read some useful books – more on those in a future blog post. And I did Rachael Roberts’ course ‘Switch off stress. Switch on success.’ which I recommend to anyone thinking about going freelance or starting their own business. You can find out more about Rachael’s course and other services here.

3. Acceptable pay and conditions

Everyone deserves to be paid fairly for the work they do, whatever line of work they are in. When it comes to the kind of specialist work many freelance ELT writers and editors do, a fee needs to take into account not just ‘time spent on the job’ but the unique skill set, expertise, experience and knowledge we bring to the table. This is sometimes more obvious for other sectors.

The Engineer Joke

The best analogy for this concept is the engineer joke, a story that has been going around for decades, probably centuries, in various forms. In brief, an engineer is called to look at a machine that has broken down in a big factory. The owners want it fixed urgently as production has stopped. The engineer looks at the machine and soon sees what the problem is. A few minutes later he returns with a hammer and gives the machine an almighty wack, fixing the problem and putting the machine back in action. He hands over a bill for $5,000 and the factory owner, shocked, asks for an itemized bill. So the engineer gives him a new bill which says:

  • Hammer $5
  • Knowing where to hit the machine with the hammer: $4,995

It isn’t rocket science. Except that sometimes, it is. Never forget that you know where to hit the machine with the hammer.

4. Only fulfilling writing work, please

The other day as I was gathering documents to do my three-monthly, tax return I was reminded of some of the projects I’d been working on. The best ones were ones where I felt fulfilled, engaged, got into the whole ‘flow’ vibe, and actually looked forward to turning my computer on and getting down to work. This wasn’t the case with all of the work though. A couple of projects weren’t right for me.

On example is ‘assessment materials’. I just can’t get excited about them. Others can though, and that’s good. But even though I know this, I haven’t always borne it in mind.

[Note: I just fell into a Google rabbit hole while checking it was ‘borne’ and not ‘born’.]

I’ve sometimes accepted work offers that I really should have turned down. While there are obvious reasons for this, such as those nagging thoughts that if I don’t say yes to this particular work, I might find myself without any work. But in my experience something always comes along. And if it doesn’t, I shout out that I need some work, and someone usually hears me.

Doing work you find boring can be soul destroying. Obviously there are elements of all projects that can be monotonous and distinctly unexciting, but I’ve decided to take a Marie Kondo approach for the foreseeable future. If the job description doesn’t spark joy, or at least interest, curiosity and a tiny bit of excitement, I’ll quietly retreat. Even the thought of only working on projects that I love makes me feel positive. I mean, what’s the point of being self-employed if we can’t cherry pick?

So that’s it. Do you plan to make any changes to your work life in 2022? If so, I’d love to hear what they are. Oh and the photo? That’s me looking to the future in my curlers.