Success isn’t just for extroverts, according to author and “hermit entrepreneur” Morra Aarons-Mele. In an ambitious and stressful field of business, Aarons-Mele has built her expertise in finding excellence without breaking yourself. She talked to us about her “aha moment”, her work-at-home schedule, and the two lists she makes twice a year.
Location: Boston, MA Current Gig: Founder of Women Online and The Mission List, author of Hiding in the Bathroom: A Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and host of podcast Hiding in the Bathroom One word that best describes how you work: Specifically Current mobile device: iPhone 7 with my cool Bandolier crossbody wallet attachment Current computer: MacBook Pro, webcam covered, for travel. Large screen Mac Thunderbolt and old Macbook Air for ergonomically smart workstation at home.
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a digital political consultant and I’ve been creating marketing campaigns that mobilize women online since 1999, when I helped Hillary Clinton go online for her first chat. I was head of marketing for Europe’s largest online travel site and internet marketing director for the Democratic National Committee.
I’ve had many jobs in both internet marketing and politics – and I quit them all. I’m just not cut out for the office 9 – 6 or advancing my career through traditional channels. I am allergic to fluorescent lights and I hate being around people all day! I’m an extremely anxious introvert.
I started freelancing to put myself through graduate school and had an aha moment: I love my work as a digital marketer. I just hated how I did it, sitting in a large office all day, wading through office politics, schmoozing, always being “on”. I kept freelancing and built my business, Women Online, with the vision that we would be the first digital marketing agency focusing on creating online campaigns that mobilized women for good causes.
Because my vision was about women’s advancement, I was committed to my employees having the kind of flexible, manageable workload I set for myself. We wouldn’t have an office, and everyone who worked for me would be able to keep their own hours and plan their own days. It would be small and profitable, meaningful and manageable.
I’m a hermit entrepreneur. Over the last decade, I’ve built a life that allows me to earn enough money and find just enough recognition without driving myself crazy and sacrificing my homebody self. Of course, this best of both worlds lifestyle comes at a cost. It has meant sacrifices, some FOMO, less success than some peers, and a slower path. But it’s my version of success, and I love it.
Take us through a recent workday.
5:45 AM Wake to my 3 year old’s demands for juice.
6:00 – 7:00 Turn on Morning Joe. Make coffee, check emails and twitter. Work on a blog post (I write best first thing in the morning).
7:00 – 7:30 Make breakfast for kids.
7:30 Nanny arrives. Work in bed until 9.
9:00 – 10:00 Client and team check in calls.
10:00 – 11:00 Volunteer at my son’s school library. Do a quick call on the way.
11:00 Go for a walk (alone!).
12:30 Stop by the grocery store to buy dinner for tonight.
2:00 Host a Facebook Live: Make up top half of my face and put on a nice shirt.
2:30 – 3:30 Client calls.
3:30 – 4:00 Kids come home from school, say hi and hear about their day. Make some pesto for dinner and check on the garden. Read the newspaper and stretch.
4:30 – 5:30 Work on a proposal for a potential client.
7:45 Practice a speech in front of my husband.
8:00 – 9:00 Finish working on blog post, catch up on email.
9:00 Bed early for 4:45 AM. wake-up for flight to NYC.
I’m checking emails (and Twitter) all day on my iPhone and laptop.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Boomerang for Google Apps: That way I can work at weird hours, but schedule my emails to send during normal work hours. MailChimp for my newsletters. Libsyn for producing my podcast! Shared Google calendars for managing home and work schedules (always put both personal and work time on your calendar!)
I deleted Facebook from my phone and I feel much calmer. It really cuts down on the FOMO.
My favourite gadget is my electric stand-up desk, which allows me to change positions throughout the day.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a home office with a nice large monitor, and a chaise lounge. I have trained myself to start doing “deep work” when I light a Jo Malone Orange Blossom candle, so that’s often how I transition from email or social media surfing time into doing more thoughtful work!
Usually two of my three cats will be snoozing near me while I work. I get migraines, so I change my workstation a lot throughout the day. I like to work in bed in the mornings, and then move down to my office later. I have a landline, which is very important to me. I don’t like talking on the cell phone.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I carry sneakers with me everywhere. Because I do my best thinking when I’m alone, walking, and because time for exercise can be tough to come by, I build in walks whenever I can: while waiting for a kid’s appointment, being stuck at an airport, or getting to and from meetings in a new city.
On home days, I try to have 60 minutes a day with no entertainment or outside influence. I let the thoughts percolate and even allow myself to be bored. It’s how all my ideas and solutions happen.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I try to follow a schedule of “Three days on, two days off,” or vice versa. Thanks to the deliberate way I’ve organised my business, I can literally be at the U.N. one day and home with the kids digging in the dirt the next.
Because I’m a consultant as well as the sales driver for my company, I’m on the road a lot: I have to see clients, pitch for new business, and give talks that juice up business development. Whether in Boston or another city, I try to limit this out-of-home time to a couple days a week. The rest of the time, I’m home working from bed or my home office, in yoga pants. And every single day, I build in lots of breaks and alone time for myself, even if it’s just five minutes in a quiet room.
I have my six months reset; I try to figure out where I’m at, in work and life (with my kids and also with my marriage!). Any business goes through busy and slack times, and sometimes my side projects also get really intense. So while one of my stated goals is to have as much control of my time as I can and make plenty of time for my kids, things can get out of whack.
After my book tour, I really had to reevaluate things because my kids were strongly feeling my absence. On the other hand, last summer I took a little too much time off and really needed to bring in more business!
So I do the “More/Less Exercise.” My friend and colleague Christine Koh is a huge intention-setter, and I’ve learned from her. I asked Christine about the vision she guides her life by, and she shared this exercise:
Take a piece of paper. Make two columns: “More” and “Less.” On each column, make a list: what do I want more of? What do I want less of? Look at the list to see what items elicit a really strong reaction. For the items that elicit the strongest reactions, jot down action items to help move it forward or resolve. Then revisit every six months.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I have the most incredible team at Women Online. We are all grownups. We don’t do drama and since we all work virtually, we really need to keep ourselves on track and communicate effectively. We text, email, and call each other all day. I have a wonderful assistant who manages my schedule and minutiae.
My nanny Jessie is probably the most important linchpin; she takes wonderful care of my kids but also helps around the house and even installed our screen doors! When I hear from people who are planning to work at home and skip the childcare, I chuckle inside. It doesn’t work.
I have a village of other working mums who provide moral support and advice, and of other small business owners who help me figure things out. I’m always texting or messaging someone for support and advice, often my husband, who’s great at both.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I have a routine. Every morning and evening I write down my to do list: both personal and professional items. Then, I add the items to my Google Apps calendar. I often rewrite the lists because I like them to look neat, for some reason. If I’m out and about I leave myself a voice memo when inspiration or urgency hits.
How do you recharge or take a break?
Ever since I called legendary workplace expert Stew Friedman in the middle of a power nap, I stopped apologizing for taking breaks during the day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I build in self care and alone time everyday, without shame, because it keeps me healthy and a lot of people depend on me. On the other hand, I can recharge in the middle of a day just by taking 30 minutes to do a chore around the house: weeding, cooking, even laundry. I love to putter.
What’s your favourite side project?
My podcast. Podcasting is the greatest medium. I love the intimacy of asking people questions through a microphone.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I’m reading the novel Circe, and it’s gripping. I read a lot of fiction. I read the New York Times everyday, plus lots of magazines. I never miss newsletters, from Fortune’s Broadsheet to Politico.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
My dream is to see a really successful corporate executive – a partner in a law firm – who works as idiosyncratically as I do. I want to see a Fortune 500 CEO who works from home one day a week!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Sales is problem solving. When you understand that, you don’t need to spend hours networking, schmoozing, or building your personal brand. Understand what your customer needs help with!
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
How to not obsessively check Twitter, because it makes me depressed. And how to stop my brain from being an endlessly roving to do list. Working independently is wonderful, but it can feel like a lot to juggle sometimes.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Nick.