How I make my living doing what I do

Cathy ZielskeCZ Life37 Comments
I never know from month to month how much money I’m going to make and whether or not the ends are going to end up meeting. It’s more or less been this way since 1999.

Some months are good. Some months suck. Some months are even steven.

In the summer of 1999, Coleman Asher Zielske arrived on the scene. At that time I was working as a graphic designer for the Science Museum of Minnesota. It was by far the coolest job I’d ever had. I worked with two other designers who were so much better than I was and rather than be intimidated by them, I soaked up everything they had to teach me. I had left my previous corporate design job, a position I held for seven years, and took a sizable pay cut for the chance to do something new. Something cool. And to learn.

But after Cole showed up, the idea of working just to keep two kids in day care and having some groceries, too, just didn’t seem like the smartest choice.

Save for a period from about 2007 to 2009 when I earned a bonafide weekly paycheck from Simple Scrapbooks magazine, my income has always been based on whatever work I could cobble together. Freelance jobs, online classes, digital products. These are the things that have kept my family afloat over these many years.

It’s funny because for a person who used to thrive on control, working in this manner doesn’t seem like it would be a good fit for me at all. But surprisingly, it has been.

From time to time, people ask me how I do it. How do I make a living this way? I don’t really think about how it happens on a daily basis, mostly because I’m just busy doing what I do and seeing what shakes out.

While I do believe timing and luck play a part, I also believe that knowing your shit in your particular area doesn’t exactly hurt. Here are some of the ways that help me make a living doing what I do, even if it doesn’t automatically translate to the big bucks.

1. I work a lot. As in pretty much every day of the week. I feel like this is something a lot of self-employed people have in common and it’s something that I’ve never really minded. But just because I work a lot, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a life as well. It just means that there are times when I’m here at this computer for a lot of hours in any given week. How many? That can vary. On average I work about 35–40 hours a week, but it’s spread out over seven days so it doesn’t seem overwhelming. The key is to make this time productive time. In other words, if I’m just watching cat videos, it doesn’t count. On the other hand, if 65 to 70 hours are required certain weeks, then so be it. My favorite hours to work? 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Maybe it’s the coffee, but that time is always productive time.

2. I practice writing. I love to write and I hope that it shows. I’m not the greatest writer out there but I care about the words I put into this space. This blog is a key part of my business. I spend a lot of time writing blog posts and rewriting them. I cut shit out that is superfluous as often as I can. I try to communicate clearly. As much as I love the process, it still takes focus and thought.

3. I know how to meet deadlines. Both for assigned work (freelance jobs, class development) as well as my own personal deadlines (blog posts, digital products, et al). This doesn’t mean I don’t procrastinate. It just means I know how far I can push that procrastination before it’s time to come to Jesus and get ‘er done.

4. I try new things. Whether it’s a new blog feature that I think will be fun (the Present Participle List, Make a Page Monday) or taking a class to learn how to use Illustrator better, I look for ways to keep myself engaged in the process of my business, as well as ways to increase my skills and efficiencies. Even if the new things don’t pan out or they simply crash and burn, I still keep trying to find new ways to stay inspired with what I am doing and how I am doing it.

5. I don’t freak out when something doesn’t go the way I’d planned. This is a huge change for me in my work and in my life. Here’s an example: sometimes you’ll work really hard on something that you think is going to be a home run only to see it tank or do much less well than anticipated (a class or a new product, for example). Rather than get dejected, I try to understand where it missed the mark, make adjustments and keep plugging away. I think self-employed people have to accept the failures with the successes, because you really don’t have a guarantee of everything being awesome all the time. Plus, our failures teach us a lot. I know mine do.

I hope to share more bits about my work and blogging and life as a self-employed woman. If there’s anything you’re interested in knowing, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And now I can check this post off my to-do list. Next up: checking my Facebook for any new cat videos.


Cathy ZielskeHow I make my living doing what I do

37 Comments on “How I make my living doing what I do”

    1. #1.1

      I love reading your words and to be honest, I thought they just flowed out without much editing.

  1. #2

    great job ! I really appreciate your blog ! thank you for everything you give : blog posts, ideas, creativity etc…

  2. #3

    And with all that, you manage to do a great job! And here’s a random thought – how about that picture of you and Dan in the shot above! Wow!

      1. #4.1.1

        I have always thought that you are one of the funniest people on the planet and this reply just shows it. Nice one!

  3. #7
    Cindy aka Scrapcollectr

    After years of drooling over collaged pages, I’m embracing the fact that when I return to Scrapbooking it will be much like the clean and simple grid style you are so good at. Always loved your pages. My collages are better in miniature on my Filofax pages. Lol.

  4. #8

    ……not that there’s anything wrong with watching cat videos………

    I definitely admire the self-employed….

    Something I would never do………..I think……..


  5. #9

    cathy, i so admire your work, your honesty, the courage it takes to run a business like this. my question is…it looks like most of your classes and products are offered through third parties (i.e. bpc, dd). do you ever plan to offer these through your own website/have your own store? or is that something you prefer to not have on your plate?

  6. #10
    Cathy Zielske

    Hey Kelly, well… it is something I would like to do eventually. Maybe. I’m working on some long term plans and goals for the next few years so we’ll see what shakes out!


  7. #11
    Mary J

    Well, I love what you do and I’ve done my best to buy as much as I can and take every class to help support you in any way I can. Just keep doing what you are doing and I’ll keep buying!! Love your products and your classes!! Can’t wait to see where we’re going next! Thanks!!

    1. #11.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Well Mary, for that, I am grateful. Truly. It’s people like you who enable me to do what I do. I never forget that, not for a second. 🙂

  8. #12
    Lynn L.

    I have always enjoyed your willingness to tell it like it is in your world. Your design knowledge is what keeps me coming back. Love your clean style!!

  9. #13
    Kendra B

    Thanks for sharing how you do what you do 🙂 Now go watch all the Henri videos you can find (and also check out Simon’s cat).

  10. #14

    I have admired your style for years but I feel like I am truly getting to know the honest, real woman that you are. Thanks for your words and ideas they continue to be creatively encouraging for me! You rock Cathy!

  11. #15

    I am going to count myself lucky that as a freelance writer for Cat Fancy magazine, I can justify the watching of cat videos. 🙂

    Love this glimpse behind the curtain. I’m working toward making my current part-time job (the Cat Fancy gig, and others) into my full-time job, and I appreciate all the self-employed tips I can get.

    1. #15.1
      Cathy Zielske

      How cool! I remember being so happy to get to write for a scrapbook magazine and then to work for them full time. Magazines about fun topics for the win!

  12. #16
    Christine K.

    I think you are one of the best teachers on the internet. I have taken 2 of your classses plus have watched the free ones on your blog. Your delivery is top notch. I look forward to your latest offering.

  13. #17
    Michelle t

    I don’t do digital layouts, but I always come away learning and being able to apply it to my paper layouts. Plus I love your personality. Michelle t

  14. #18

    I just have to ask – what’s up with the framed word art that says “I keep him in here”…there must be a story there!
    Love the blog redesign, by the way. Very classy & I love the color, too!

    1. #18.1
      Cathy Zielske

      A story? But of course there is! 😉

      I have a friend named Mark Spearman, who happens to be a very funny man and gifted writer. We both have a ridiculous love for the film “Silence of the Lambs” and we often try to one up each other by quoting, not the obvious lines, but the lesser sung verbal heroes of the film. This quote is when Dr. Chilton is talking to Clarice Starling, upon her first visit to see Dr. Lecter at the asylum, and as the are about to enter the dank, nether regions where he is housed, he says to her, “I keep him in here.”

      That’s the story. Maybe it’s my subtle nod to containing the crazy. Who can say, really? 🙂

  15. #19
    Cindy Gordon

    Hi Cathy, thanks for this post – it was helpful to me as I’m figuring out what my next life adventure is going to be. I too find I am most productive in the mornings, but I am struggling with finding the right flow and/or structure to my days in order to be productive. I find I’m hung up on silly stuff like whether I should get up early and exercise and journal and then work; or since I’m so productive in the morning, should I go straight to the computer and work? Exercise after working? Probably, I should just start doing, stop sweating the details, and see what sticks. In the meantime, I would love to see a post about your daily schedule and how you manage your time throughout the day. I’ve always loved seeing how other people manage their time and lives. Hope you have a great week.

  16. #20

    Cathy, I’ve been a long time fan both of your design style as well as your approach to work. You were the one who told me, during a DD chat, that you can learn graphic design without going to a school for that, and gave me confidence. Thank you! Recently I started getting some freelance jobs and thanks to heaven, it has been good and essencial to my family. I have a few “clients” and I’d like to learn how do you keep track of the jobs, their demands (observations or requests from the clients) and their priorities: a notebook ? Post-its(lol) ? I am looking for something objective and somehow stylish too, out of the techno gadget life – evernote has been great but I was thinking something I can really look at while the computer screen is busy and the cell phone is kept to check my clients’ social media.
    Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. #20.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Hey Carla,

      I have used a few different things. Most recently, I started using an app on my Mac called “Punch In”. My main goal was to track the time I actually spent on my own projects to do some analysis of income versus time allotted for each thing I was working on. But, it works great for tracking client jobs, of which I have pretty much zero right now (which is actually a good thing.)

      It’s a pretty simple interface and it’s not too expensive. I can’t remember exactly, less than $20 or maybe it was free. It lets you set up types of jobs/clients, etc. It lets you add notes to each job as well. Might be worth trying.

      For what it’s worth, Evernote is my go to place for notes about jobs etc. Or other projects. Love that app!

  17. #22

    Thanks for this post! I just started doing some contract project management stuff plus running my own crafty business and I’m still getting used to the work from home, variable income thing. It’s nice to read about established folks who have been doing this for a long time.

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