Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Choose the next 30-day challenge

It's that time again. Not only is it a new year, full of unique challenges we can't begin to fathom today, but it's time for a new 30-day challenge. I'd love to see in the comments below which of the following challenges you'd like to tackle next?

Financial Challenge

2009 will be a stressful year for most of us, given the state of the world economy. So now's the time to put our finances in order. This challenge will address credit card debt, cashflow issues and other financial freakouts that suck the serenity right out of us.

Marketing Challenge

The key to my success is always marketing, whether that means networking, sending letters of introduction, or generating and reslanting queries. In this challenge, I'll lay out ways to make marketing easier, challenge you to send more queries and maybe even offer a prize to the person who sends the most queries.

Another Self-Care Challenge

The beginning of the year is always a time to come down from the excesses of the holiday season--too much spending, too much eating and too much drinking. So how do we realign and focus for the new year? In this challenge I'll consider some options.

Let me know which you'd like to see--and even feel free to suggest other challenges if none of these spark your interest.

The next challenge will start in mid-January, after I get back from a well-deserved vacation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: The Wrap Up

Here's to 2008 and the end of this 30-day business planning challenge. In case you missed anything, here's a round up:

Planning for Serenity: A reprieved post on what business planning has to do with serenity.

Checking on Progress: Here's what my business plan tells me about my goals vs. my achievements this year.

Goals vs. Actions: Does a business plan work? Here's a lively debate about what success means in business planning.

How Katrina Does It
: A skeleton plan and regular review is all freelancer Katrina Ramser needs to keep her on track.

Learning Your Way
: Or, planning your way. Plan in a way that works with your learning style.

The Plan Is Useless; Planning Is Essential
: A Q&A with business planning guru Tim Berry.

Choose a Module, Any Module
: Following Berry's advice, I lay out the first of several modules that allow you to start planning now without setting aside a day or a week for it. Day 1? Philosophy.

2008 Modules: Day 2? A summary of what you accomplished this year.

How Kim Does It: Simple questions to guide your business planning in 2009.

2009 Modules, Part 1: Your financial requirements for the coming year.

2009 Module, Part 2: Marketing and other plans that will help you meet those financial goals.

2009 Modules, Part 3
: New directions, new markets and new beats for 2009.

Reaching Goals With Groups: Q&A with "goals gal" Karen Childress, who has used accountability groups to help her reach her goals for years.

New Modules for 2009: Fellowships, awards and other fun add-ons to my 2009 plan.

Forget the Plan, Not the Planning
: Biz plan expert Erik Sherman lays out the case for year-round planning. Notice a theme here?

Finding the Time to Plan: Squeezing business planning into my already busy life and the structure that gets me there.

I'd love to hear what worked for you and what didn't in this challenge.

Monday, December 29, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Have you found the time?

As this 30-day challenge winds down--and the year does the same--it's a good time to check in on progress. Tomorrow, I'll sum up this challenge in wrap-up post. But first, a question:

Have you found the time to do your business planning?

I'll be honest: I know exactly what I will do, but I haven't done it yet. Does that mean I won't do it? No. The great thing is, despite the overwhelming number of modules I laid out for you last week and the week before, it only took me two hours to update my business plan last year.

That's because I have a structure and have practice.

That wasn't the case the first year I tried doing it on my own. I didn't get to it until April or May, and I slogged through it over several weeks, each step more painful than the last. Basically, I didn't know what I was doing.

So if it's slow-going this year, don't be put off. Learn from my experience:

Getting through your business plan this year will tell you what information you need to track in 2009 to make your 2010 business plan a breeze.

I've mentioned it several times, but I keep track of my income, my time and my assignments all in one Word doc. For you, it might be better to do it in QuickBooks or Quicken or Excel or on some iPhone app with which I'm unfamiliar. But the point is to create the doc, save it as a new file every month (god bless the creators of the "Save As" button), and track:
  • What kind of work you do,
  • Who your clients are
  • How much you earned and
  • From which sources
Then you can sit down at a cafe, as I plan to do tomorrow afternoon, and go through it all with a calculator and a chart. And voila! Business plan!

It really doesn't have to be painful--and keeping track can show you the progress you're making. It's done wonders for my query motivation to see how much money I'm earning from stories I pitch myself.

Do you have one hour you can spend on your business planning this week?

Friday, December 26, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Forget the Plan, Not the Planning

At this point, we're getting to the end of our challenge. You've seen how I do business plans and how others do business plans. You've seen every module (practically) you can include in a plan. And one theme comes up over and over again: Don't just write it and forget it. Business planning is an ongoing thing, a living organism that gets bigger and better when you focus on it. Today, guest blogger Erik Sherman, who taught me to do my first business plan and who is offering a new class on business planning in January, explains why making business planning a practice rather than a product is essential.

In the business planning for writers class I sometimes teach, I've often been asked about writing a business plan. "Don't bother," I say.

That probably sounds strange, but it actually isn't. Over the years, I've found that most companies and people write business plans for one of three reasons:
  • They think they're "supposed" to.

  • They want to get someone to give them money.

  • They're taking a class on business planning.
I've worked on my share of business plans, and they can be a good exercise. At some point you need to think about what it is that you want your business to do, how you plan to market it, who your market is, whether you can realistically make enough money to stay afloat, and what the potential for the venture is.

But the problem with the way most people undertake business planning is that it becomes nothing more than a formal activity for a period of time. The result, a paper document, gets shoved into a metaphorical (or sometimes real) desk drawer to sit. Then the plan authors go off, start trying to make a go of it, and forget all about that plan they devised.

That is a largely useless expenditure of time and energy because the planning has now stopped. According to experts--and my own experience in a number of areas supports this--planning should generally represent a good 80 percent of a project. You put all that time into planning because you want to maximize your chances of achieving what you set out to do in the time you allotted. You start with anticipating as much as you can, and then as things unfold, you continue to refer to the plan, modifying it as circumstances change and periodically seeing if you are still on track and, if not, whether you can get back on.

But if the plan has become a fossil in a drawer, you quickly lose any benefit from it that you got. What if one customer segment turns out to be the best fit for what you want to accomplish? It might be that unexpected expenses will increase the amount of money you need to make to be
self-sufficient. A sideline offering might overtake what you thought would be your main line of business.

It is easy to get lost in the daily process of running a business. Without keeping an eye on what you want to achieve and the plans you put into place, you can easily head off in a wrong direction. This is akin to driving without a map in an area that is unfamiliar to you. Getting caught up in the specifics of where you are doesn't tell you if you're getting closer to the ultimate destination.

When I teach planning, students do start with some exercises that help establish where they want to go. But most of the class focuses on how to make planning work in operating the business. That includes measuring success, pinpointing weaknesses, and otherwise working smarter, not harder.

I'm not saying never write a business plan. But make sure you know why you're doing it. If you're not setting a framework to help you make better decisions and to keep the business headed the way you wanted in the first place, then you're keeping the drudgery and losing most of the benefit.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Year of Self-Employed Serenity: Editor's Picks

Happy Holidays, all! To spread the joy off the season, I've linked below to the posts that make me feel most serene, most loved and most connected, even in my business life. This is a follow up to a post I made last week about the most popular posts during the first year of this blog. Consider this a gift of serenity, loving-kindness and gratitude for letting me share what I've learned over the past year.

What Serenity Isn't. Serenity won't fix you. Putting it in perspective, though, will make it more accessible.

What Serenity Is. Finding serenity is an oft-overused phrase. Let's get to the heart of what it can mean practically to you in your business.

What's Your 1 Percent? Want to know if you're about to lose your serenity by focusing on something out of your control? Use this as your guide.

Serenity Tip: Resiliency. We can't plan for everything--no matter how good our business plan. What we can do is cultivate a life that supports us bouncing back from difficult situations.

Serenity Enemy: Deprivation. As you look at the enormity of the task ahead--especially if you're aware that you need to increase your income drastically--you may be feeling especially poor, especially stress and especially deprived. Here are some ways to cope with that feeling.

The Serenity of Support. It's not just Karen who gets a lot out of support for her business. I find it crucial to my ability to focus on what I can control and let go of what I can't. Here's how.

The Serenity Muscle. Developing serenity in your business, just like developing a thriving career, takes discipline.

The Letting Go Tool Kit. Surrendering what you have no control of is especially hard when it can determine whether your business succeeds. Do it anyway. Here's how.

Cultivating Persistence. A little word of wisdom about passion from This American Life's Ira Glass.

A Word About Forgiveness. A meditation practice for those days when your clients, your sources and your colleagues are just driving you up a wall.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Some New Modules for 2009

I've laid out a lot of modules for you. I know it can be overwhelming. Please don't feel like you have to do all of them. But as I read other's methods of planning and as I think about the blind spots in my own business, I've created a few new modules I'm thinking of adding to this year's plan.

They're mostly fun stuff.

Consider these:

Monthly/Quarterly Accomplishments
It's been brought to my attention this year that I tend to move the bar on myself: I accomplish something and then my mind clicks over and asks, "You achieved this. So why haven't you achieved that? Clearly, you're a slacker." Most of my colleagues and editors would disagree with that characterization. And while I believe that most successful people are always looking for the next mountain to climb, there's a limit. And there's a difference between ambition and not letting yourself savor your successes.

So taking a cue from Katrina's more laid back approach to planning, I want to add a module that's all about those accomplishments. It would look something like the balance sheet I described in the self-care challenge--only this one would live in an ongoing business planning document I update monthly. I plan to include anything I consider an accomplishment:
  • Meeting an income goal.
  • Adding a new client.
  • Getting better at workflow, cashflow or time management.
  • Attending networking events.
  • Sending X queries.
  • Staying on my marketing goals.
The list goes on, but the point is to create a list and then put it all together at the end of the year for me to examine and--let's face it--bask a little bit.

Who wouldn't want a stipend or a paid trip to learn more about your field. This fits into my goal of advancing my craft--but every time one of these deadlines rolled around this year, I found myself miles deep in files, deadlines and day-to-day minutea. This module will allow me to put together a list of fellowships I want to apply for, their deadlines (or, if they aren't yet announced, when they were due the year before) and what they require.

The next step, then, would be to put them on my calendar with a reminder a month or a few weeks before the deadline so I can put them together.

This fits in with the first module. Accomplishments. Let's celebrate them. But first we have to take time to corral the clip, copy it, address it and figure out when it's due and to whom. So I'd like to spend some quality time with Lovely Lady Google and find the awards I want to track, add them into my calendar, record the address to which they are to be sent and maybe set up a special file on my desk organizer in which to store award-worthy stories until they're due.

How will you plan in your rewards for 2009?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Reaching Goals with Support

There are as many ways to do business plans as there are creative professionals. But you wouldn't know that looking at the business planning section of your local library. So in this challenge, I've enlisted some friends and colleagues to describe the way they found their business plans and what works for them. I'm hoping one of them will inspire you.

Today's post comes from healthcare freelancer Karen Childress , who had a former life as a creative coach. She finds success reaching her business plan's goals with formal and informal planning groups. If doing it alone is daunting, consider her approach, described in the Q&A that follows.

You said in our private email conversation that you've been a "goals gal" forever. What do you mean?
In the mid-1980s I started listening to Brian Tracy and other motivational experts on audio tape and became inspired to “be successful.” Over the years I’ve belonged to several goal-setting, business-success, and accountability groups and have found the process to be very helpful.

Some of these were informal groups of friends or co-workers and others were formal, facilitated groups that I paid to join. Around 2000 I became a certified coach and had the pleasure of helping clients identify, clarify, and work toward achieving their goals. Then at the height of the dot-com frenzy I founded a small Internet company that was, in part, a membership-based online goal-setting and tracking system. Unfortunately, that business didn’t take off and I eventually shut the site down. It was an expensive but valuable lesson.

So, basically, I’ve believed in goal setting for years. Some people shy away from this sort of planning as being too structured, but I find it to be useful, especially at the start of a new year.

Why a goal group instead of managing and monitoring your goals on your own?
I think it’s the accountability piece that makes it work for me. I can set goals and make action lists all day long and then blow off doing what I say is important if I get busy, distracted, or just feel uninspired or lazy. But if I’ve shown someone else my list and made a commitment to accomplish certain tasks toward achieving my goals then I’m much more likely to follow through. It’s nice to report successes to other members of a group and get support and feedback when I’m stuck on something or need to hear an objective point of view.

Do you have an individual business plan or does the goal group function as a business planning group?
Typically at the beginning of each year I write down a list of personal and professional goals. That, in addition to a simple marketing plan is really the extent of my business plan. But my business is very simple. It’s just me and a fairly steady group of clients that I write for. But each year I know a few clients will drop off for one reason or another, so I’m always in marketing mode to some degree in an effort to keep new business coming in.

You mentioned that you make annual, monthly and weekly goals. How do you choose those?
I strive for balance. I have business and financial goals, but also have categories related to taking care of myself, projects I want to accomplish around my home and property, and things I want to learn in the coming year. For example, in 2009 I plan to earn a little more than I did this year while maintaining life balance, and also learn to use PhotoShop and InDesign so that I can support a couple of my clients who need simple marketing pieces in addition to what I write for them.

How do you use your goal group to accomplish business goals? Can you remember a specific business goal your goal group helped you reach?
Mainly for accountability, but also to get fresh ideas from other people who are in business for themselves. It’s energizing to hear what other people are up to. I haven’t had a goal group for a few years (just getting started in a new one with a group of writers for 2009) but I do recall when I first went out on my own as a consultant/coach many years ago that being in a group was the thing that helped me jump start my business.

If readers want to set up their own goal groups, what should they look for in other members? How should they structure it?
Compatibility, mutual respect, and commitment. They should decide if they want to be in a group with members in the same business as theirs, or in one with more variety. In the group I’m about to get started with, we’re all freelance writers (six of us total). We’re scattered all over the country, so our plan is to meet weekly by phone for 45-60 minutes.

There are also consultants who run these types of groups as a business. I’ve done some writing for a client, Blair Koch in Denver, who runs The Alternative Board,groups of business owners who meet in person monthly to solve business challenges with Blair as their facilitator and coach. A friend of mine, Valerie Taloni, runs Peer Success Groups, which are facilitated by telephone. Her groups meet monthly as well and I believe she also coaches each person in the group privately between the group gatherings. Another client, Joy Chudacoff in Los Angeles runs success circles exclusively for women.

Anything else I didn't ask that you wanted to add?
I’d encourage your readers to think about their goals seriously and be ambitious in setting them, but not so ambitious that they feel overwhelmed. Better to achieve one or two important goals than make a list so long that you don’t know where to start. And don’t set goals related only to business and money. Life balance is important, especially for those of us who are self-employed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: 2009 Modules Part 3

This is the fifth in a series of modules you can choose from to start making a business plan as you go. The first post laid out modules for your values and mission. The second laid out modules for assessing 2008. The third laid out your financial goals for 2009. The fourth helped you come up with a plan for reaching your financial goals.

Today, we'll complete the modules--and help you meet your goals.

Remember: You can start anywhere. I've suggested an order, but please don't let it stop you. Pick one, do it, and go back to work.

Coverage Areas 2009
Looking back on your breakdown of the types of stories you do and the beats you cover and assess. And look at the financial health of your current clients.

Now, make a list:
  • Coverage types you love;
  • Coverage types you tolerate; and
  • Coverage types you want to quit in 2009.
Maybe you're sick to death of service pieces. Maybe you love profiles but only did one this year. Make a goal to find and pitch more of the types you like and to let go of the ones that drag you down. Be specific. Do you want to do five profiles? Cut service pieces down to 10 this year? Just make a goal.

Do the same for beats.

New beats 2009
Now that you know what you want to cover next year, look at what new beats you want to add in 2009. Are there areas that are more profitable into which you want to expand? Are there topics that you don't cover but would like to? Maybe there's a coverage area that seems more profitable that you want to explore.

Make a list and spend a few minutes brainstorming stories and markets.

Market Changes
Now that you know who you've worked for this year, how much you like them and how much money you need to make to support your dreams, revisit your list of current clients.

Divide it into:
  • Clients you love;
  • Clients I'm on the fence about; and
  • Clients to let go in the coming year.

Target Markets
You may have discovered that you need to pitch. Where will you do it? Look at the magazines, custom pubs and corporate clients you want to break into and choose five primary ones. If they're consumer pubs, subscribe to them and study them. If they're corporate or custom pubs, make a list of 10-20.

Hey guess what? You've done it!

Now go reward yourself!

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Year of Self-Employed Serenity

As of Nov. 30, this blog had been around for a year. To celebrate it, the 131 posts so far and all the great discussion on this blog, I'm highlighting the most popular posts of the year. In another post, I'll highlight Editor Picks--that is, my favorite posts.

Getting Over Rejection Creatively. A Q&A with Creatively Self-Employed blogger and author Kristen Fischer.

30-Day Business Planning Challenge: Goals vs. Actions. In this post I make my case for a business plan based on what you can control--not on what you can't control, such as whether the New Yorker recognizes your genius this year.

Serenity Tip: Email Time. A quick and easy way to wrangle your email and keep it from taking over your life.

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Day 7. One of the greatest ways to care for myself is to do work that feeds my soul. Here, I highlight one way to do that.

Serenity Tip: PITA Tax. Have clients that are robbing you of serenity by overstepping the bounds of professionalism. Here's one solution.

Serenity Insurance: Being a Good Steward
. If you're self-employed you know that the things you use to function on a daily basis keep you sane. Keep them functioning by remembering your obligation to take care of them.

Where Does Your Happiness Come From? Another way to look at rejection is to remove your ego from the equation and practice gratitude.

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 1. Any time you start a new venture or attempt to change a long-ingrained pattern, you've got to assess where you're at and set priorities. Here's how I do it.

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 2. Change is overwhelming. Here's one way to deal with organizing overwhelm. A guest post from organizer June Bell.

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 14. Here, guest blogger Janine Adams lays out the top five most common organizing mistakes.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: 2009 Modules Part 2

This is the fourth in a series of modules you can choose from to start making a business plan as you go. The first post laid out modules for your values and mission. The second laid out modules for assessing 2008. The third laid out your financial goals for 2009. And now, we start with the modules that will help you meet those goals.

So if the last post scared you, this one will start giving you answers. Let's get to it!

Remember: You can start anywhere. I've suggested an order, but please don't let it stop you. Pick one, do it, and go back to work.

Where You'll Get the Money
For me, this is the fun part. There are lots of ways to do this. Some freelancers, like Katrina Ramser, come up with exactly how much money they expect each client to give them in 2009 and where she has holes to fill to meet those goals.

I do it a little differently.

I play around with the work types I do and their average pay (department: $1600; short: $300; feature: $3000; etc.) to come up with five or six different scenarios that will help me make my goal.

It's similar to the way novelist and writing instructor Elizabeth Stark describes putting together a piece of fiction. She says, "Putting chunks together is exactly how to build a story." I would say that putting together pieces of income is how you make a living as a freelancer. She goes on to say:
A story was usually about at least two things, two unexpectedly juxtaposed things, out of which a third–call it meaning [ed. note: for our purposes, we'll call it self-sufficiency]–emerged. The tension in story comes where the crosscurrents create suction, movement, a whirlpool.

Try laying out your cards. Shuffle the deck and try it another way. Card by card, lay out the story, until it’s one you’ve never heard before but which you know to be true.

It's the same for coming up with how you'll make your income goal. Lay out the different types of work you do one by one and put them together: two features a month will get you your income goal, perhaps. Or maybe two shorts, a department and a feature. Or some other combination.

Come up with a bunch of these and you'll have the combinations in your head as you query and put together your work for a month. Will it help you meet your financial goals? Now you'll know. This flexibility shows me that there are lots of ways to meet my financial goals.

You may find that none of the work you do will get you to your income goal. Or you may find that one feature client isn't enough an you'll need more. That's okay. I have been there. The next post will show you how to find clients that will get you to your income goals.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: 2009 Modules

This is the third in a series of modules you can choose from to start making a business plan as you go. The first post laid out modules for your values and mission. The second laid out modules for assessing 2008. And now for the fun part: Planning and strategizing for 2009. Why do I say this is fun? As Emily Dickinson has said, "I dwell in possibility."

Planning for the coming year lays out all your possible paths and ways for you to get there. To get to the solutions, first you have to figure out your needs. That's what today's modules are about.

Remember: You can start anywhere. I've suggested an order, but please don't let it stop you. Pick one, do it, and go back to work.

Capital Spending 2009
Had your computer for five years already? Is your printer making a weird sound? Planning a move? Need a new desk, chair, laptop bag, digital recorder, memory or software? Make a list and spend a few minutes tooling around Amazon or other sites to get a rough average of expenses.

Make sure to include personal spending, because your business will have to support your personal life, as well.

Check on Your Emergency Fund
Mine has about $200 in it right now. For real. My goal is much higher. In this module, come up with a range you want to have in savings by the end of the year.

Estimate Taxes
Plan to set aside between a fifth and half of your income for taxes, depending on your tax bracket. Really. To find out your tax bracket, you can ask your accountant or check the IRS's Web site for self-employment tax information. I know this makes you want to hide under your bed, but including in your plan is essential to keep you out of crisis later. It's just a number. It really can't hurt you.

Income needs for 2009
Carry forward your current cost of living. Then, add in:
  • Capital costs you've come up with above;
  • Your savings goals;
  • Your tax needs;
  • Any scheduled increases in expenses, like health premium increases.
Now tally it all up. That's your need every month. Again, this is just another number, and if you don't make it, it really won't kill you. I can attest to this personally. I didn't hit my income goal for 2008, but having a goal got me a lot closer than I would have been otherwise.

Hourly rate
Take that number you came up with above and, if it's monthly, divide it by four weeks, then by about 20. Twenty is about the number of hours you can expect to spend on assigned work a month--at a maximum. Some freelancers spend as little as 15 percent of their time on income work. The rest goes to marketing, admin and bill collection. Really.

Does this all sound daunting? Of course it does. This is the scariest part of every business plan and the part that keeps people from doing any of the rest of it. If you don't have the stomach for it today, then hold off. Get a friend to do it with you, or at least sit with you while you try one of the modules.

For more help with this resistance, consider a post I did last year on business planning resistance: Righting the Resistance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: How Kim Does It

There are as many ways to do business plans as there are creative professionals. But you wouldn't know that looking at the business planning section of your local library. So in this challenge, I've enlisted some friends and colleagues to describe the way they found their business plans and what works for them. I'm hoping one of them will inspire you.

Today's post comes from freelancer Kimberly Olson , who has covered many topics, including architecture and design, health, business and technology, for 15 years. How does she do it? It turns out she asks herself some simple questions. Here, she shares them with you.

Some say January 1 is a day like any other. Nothing to get excited about. I couldn’t disagree more. The New Year—as arbitrary as the date may be—offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. For me, it’s a time filled with the hope of new possibilities.

So as 2009 approaches, I’ve been immersed in what has become an annual ritual—setting my business goals for the upcoming year.

Whether you want to raise your income or take a longer vacation this year, you need a game plan. Developing a clear strategy with small, doable steps will help keep you on track. So plop down with paper and pen and answer the following questions:

What do you want to achieve in 2009?
Would you like to bring in ten new clients? Create a Web site for your business? Get more media attention? Write down your goals—and be specific.

What action steps will you take to get there?
Think about the steps you’ll need to take to achieve each goal. If you dream of getting your Web site up, you’ll need to write your Web content (or hire someone to do it). Find a Web designer. Research Web hosting companies. Jot down the tasks involved and estimate how long each step will take.

Bonus points: Develop a task schedule to help you stick with your program. If your goal is to bring in more clients, for example, make a commitment to reach out to a specific number of prospective clients each month. Then, beginning in January, keep a log of your accomplishments to track your progress and stay motivated.

What barriers might prevent you from taking your action steps?
Think about what has prevented you from achieving your goal in the past and come up with some strategies for overcoming barriers. If you still haven’t taken that evening marketing class, why not ask a friend to join you? We’re more likely to follow through if we know someone else is counting on us.

Who will be your support person?
No matter how committed you are to achieving your goal, there will be days when you’ll wonder what you were thinking when you decided to boost your profile by doing a public speaking engagement for 500 people. On days like these, it’s important to have someone to turn to who can cheer you on. Support people may also have helpful ideas for overcoming barriers to success.

How will you reward yourself?
Setting up a reward system for yourself can help keep you motivated throughout the year. You released your first e-newsletter? Treat yourself to a movie. You just scored that blue-chip client? Schedule a massage. Of course, as you achieve these mini-steps, the greatest reward will be forthcoming—as your business booms!

Monday, December 15, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: 2008 Modules

Yesterday's post laid out a few modules for you to choose from when you start working on a business plan. But wait--there's more! Today, we're focusing on modules that help analyze your 2008 work, with more to come tommorow.

Remember: You can start anywhere. I've suggested an order, but please don't let it stop you. Pick one, do it, and go back to work.

Favorite Clients

List all your clients, then rank them from one to five, with five being "I never want to get an email from them again" and one being, "I want to marry this publication and have lots of zine babies."

You'll use this module as you get to the next section, planning for 2009. You can't know where you're going till you know where you've been.

Client Health
This is a new module I'm thinking of adding to my biz plan this year: In it, I'll look up news on my client's health and see how they're doing. That way, when I get to planning for 2009, I'll have a sense of where I need to take my marketing efforts.

Work Breakdown
Equip yourself with a pen and piece of paper and scan back through your articles for 2008. Make some lists.
  • Types of assignments you did: ie, reviews, service pieces, departments, shorts, features, essays, etc.
  • Coverage areas: ie, health, real estate, technology, green lifestyle.
Whatever it is, list the type of work or beat, and then put hash marks next to each type every time you come across it. Had a year where you felt weighed down by work, irritated? It may be because you were doing types of work that don't feed you anymore. Or it could be that you're no longer excited by a coverage area.

Source of Clients
This is one of my favorite modules, and one that was really eye-opening when I added it last year. Take that list of all your clients and then think back to how you started working for them. This will show you what kind of marketing works for you: Networking, cold calling/pitching, referrals, etc.

Spending Breakdown
To know how much you need to earn next year, you first have to have a baseline of spending from which to start. A quick spin through your online bank account or accounting software may be enough. Or, if you're anal like me, you'll want to go back through a month's worth of spending and write down every penny to see what you really spend. Divide it by "business" and "personal."

I can hear you now: We had unexpected expenses this year. I shouldn't count them. Count everything. You'll always have some unexpected or unusual spending. It's the nature of the beast. Just make a category for "Unexpected." And be sure to include how much you spent on taxes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Choose a Module, Any Module

Yesterday, Tim Berry shared some great advice. Let's hear it again:
Think of a plan as a collection of separate thoughts, bullet points, maybe a table of dates and dealines, and some projections, including a few key strategy points like what you're writing for whom and what target media, some goals and objectives, a definition of success, and a lot of specific concrete steps to be taken -- dates, deadlines, task responsibilities -- and then add some basic numbers, like sales and expenses.

You don't have to stop time and suspend life and business while you do the whole thing from start to finish. On the contrary, start anywhere, get going. Pick a module to do first, whether it's target market conceptually or specific sales forecast or whatever, and do that, start using that, and go on with your business.
But if you're new to business planning, what modules should you include? I can't answer definitively, but these are some of the modules I include. Check out the list, snatch one of them and get started on it. Then let me know how it's working for you.

I break it down by several types of modules. Today, I'll start with the big picture and in later posts, I'll break it down more specifically. Feel inspired? Get started today!

First is ideological:

I know, you're wondering what morals have to do with business. To which I say: A lot. Serenity in business is about focusing on what you can control and shifting your attention away from what you can't. But it's also about doing work that's in alignment with your highest aspirations. Ideally, work feeds both your soul and your bank account. But to do that, you have to know what they are.

Here's how you find out. Each of these are modules. Do one at a time. List your:
  • Loftiest professional values;
  • Personal and community values;
  • Responsibilities; and
  • Weaknesses.
Some of these will be professional. Two of my professional values are creativity and honesty. One of my personal values is spirituality. I also value health. And it's my responsibility to pay my bills. All these go into this.

When your client asks (or you wonder) what you have to offer, this list will tell you. Here, it's helpful to have saved emails of praise from clients and readers. They are better able to tell you what your skills are than you , because your clients are the ones to whom your services need to be of value. Skills can include:
  • Professional skills: ability to type while interviewing, writing evocatively, working collaboratively with editors, being good at short turn-around assignments, and being responsive to queries, among others.
  • Personal skills: If you're the head of your homeowners association, you better believe you have conflict resolution skills and leadership skills.
  • Personal expertise: If you used to make dolls of yarn and sell them at the swap meet, you have expertise in both crafting and haggling. If you've been going to the gym forever, you may have expertise on how not to use the equipment or how to care for injured knees or shoulders. If you started, as I did, this year visiting a body worker, you have experience using alternative methods to heal physical illnesses.
Everything in your life is grist for this mill. When we get to a later module on the types of things you want to cover, you'll be primed to discuss adding or changing coverage areas.

Mission Statement, AKA your elevator speech.
Everyone needs one. Now that you've assessed your values and skills, you know what you can include in it. It should be one or two sentences that describe what you love about your job, what you do well, and what you cover. And it should help guide your business decisions in the next year.

After all, you can ask yourself: Does this assignment fit into my mission?

Next, I'll share modules for evaluating your 2008 business.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: The Plan is Useless; Planning is Essential

What does a business plan have to do with me? I'm creative!

If you find yourself asking that question, you're not alone. In fact, many of the people I've talked to this month equate a business plan with a sleek wire-bound document and venture-capital funding.

Business plans can apply to you, too. But they're different. To find out how different, I had a little chat with business-planning guru Tim Berry. He's the author of The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan and Three Weeks to Startup. He is also founder of the business-planning software Business Plans Pro.

Here's what he had to say:

How is doing a business plan different for creative professionals (writers, photographers, etc.) than for people needing VC funding, etc?

The business plan for the creative professional is a tool to improve management -- and by that I mean make more money for your work, do it better, get compensated better -- in at least two important ways.
  • It helps to hone and highlight strategy. That can be as simple as what kinds of things you want to write, for whom, and where you want to place it; it's always a matter of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
  • It keeps track of what you were thinking, some measurement of success like publications, articles, of whatever (what I call metrics) , and what was supposed to happen as a collection of concrete specific dates, deadlines, task assignments, and numbers.
With that as its function, the plan itself doesn't need the full formality of the classic business plan. It doesn't have to be a formal document, it can live on a computer or somewhere else. It doesn't have to explain the a company -- its history, its ownership, its management team, for example -- to outsiders. It doesn't need to explain an investment proposal to investors, or offer a return on investment to anybody explicitly, or have an exit strategy, or any of the many trappings of the formal business plan document intended to support a search for outside investment.

You mentioned in our private email that you believe having a business plan is more important in the current economy. Why?

Because a business plan properly managed in a planning process that includes regular plan vs. actual reviews. It's one of--if not the absolute best--tool for managing your writing business, steering it through uncertainty towards your goals.

And uncertainty is right now higher than its been at any other time in my 60-year lifetime, so the plan, as a steering mechanism, is more important than ever. I should emphasize though, when I say plan, I really mean planning process, which is keeping the plan alive, reviewing plan vs. actual, tracking progress towards the goals and making corrections where needed, particularly when assumptions change.

I often hear that people with business plans earn more money. Is that true? Is there any research as to why? If not, what's your take on the issue?

The actual research on this is spotty because almost everybody confuses planning with "the plan." What fouls up the research is that so many people think "business plan" means the full formal document, so they'll tell researchers they didn't have one. I've seen some studies showing that companies with a business plan performed better than companies without, but I've also seen studies showing that many successful companies say they didn't have a business plan. There's that confusion again because, of those who respond like that, many of them did have a plan but not a full formal plan document.

Where I go on the question of whether or not people with business plans earn more money, really, is to answer with another question: Do you think people who have thought through their strengths and weaknesses and publications and target audience strategies, managed their priorities, set goals and tracked progress against goals, and planned on dates and deadlines and task responsibilities and tracked progress and completion earn more money? I think it's common knowledge, or one of those truths that people hold to be self evident. Underneath the confusion is the Dwight D. Eiisenhower quote: "The plan is useless. Planning is essential."

Many people have told me they don't have a plan because the idea of it is overwhelming. How do you advise people to get over overwhelm? What steps can people take to make the process manageable?

This is why I say the plan-as-you-go approach is the right thing for these confusing times. Think of a plan as a collection of separate thoughts, bullet points, maybe a table of dates and dealines, and some projections, including a few key strategy points like what you're writing for whom and what target media, some goals and objectives, a definition of success, and a lot of specific concrete steps to be taken -- dates, deadlines, task responsibilities -- and then add some basic numbers, like sales and expenses.

You don't have to stop time and suspend life and business while you do the whole thing from start to finish. On the contrary, start anywhere, get going. Pick a module to do first, whether it's target market conceptually or specific sales forecast or whatever, and do that, start using that, and go on with your business. Then do another, then another. A good business plan is never done. It's also useful from module one on day one.

It should be the computer equivalent of the old-fashioned loose-leaf binder on the desk. It's always there, you work on it some, pull it up and revise it, use it to manage the relationship between the immediate fires to put out and the long-term goals, keep it alive, use it to steer the business through the hard parts.

Any other questions you'd like answered? Let me know!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Learning Your Way

What kind of business planner are you?

Not long ago, I wrote a package of stories on crisis management for Momentum Magazine, the Magazine of the National MS Society. And while business planning isn't the same as managing a chronic, degenerative disease, planning for changes and crisis is what business planning is all about.

One of the stories was about how to go about finding the information you need to plan successfully. For those of you who find business planning overwhelming, take note. Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself, according to Dr. Rosalind Kalb, a clinical psychologist and vice president of the Professional Resource Center at the National MS Society:

How much information do you really need?
Some people can only plan when they have all the information they can possibly find--when they have made themselves into an expert. Others would be overwhelmed by so much information and need to learn in small, digestible chunks. Which are you?

How best do you learn?
Some people relate best to books, others are best educated by a five-minute podcast or by online forums like this blog. Still others need a teacher to take them by the hand and show them the way.

What information should you trust?
Not all business planning advice will work for you and not all suggestions apply. Find sources you trust--whether because you want what that professional has or their advice jibes with your sense of the world--and find out how they're doing it.

What I learned when I started considering a business plan was that I needed a class. I couldn't digest piecemeal information or really "get it" from reading a book. I kept asking, "How does this apply to me?" and "Am I doing this right?"

So I found a class, and it made all the difference. The support, the constant feedback and reassurance, and the cameraderie with the other students made it seem less scary. The structure of a class comforted me.

If you're like me, allow me to recommend the business planning class taught by successful freelancer Erik Sherman. His approach is both holistic (considering your whole life and how your business can support your personal goals) and specific (how many queries do you need to send, etc.).

He's offering the class again next month, and I can't recommend it enough. If you have some end-of-year spending to do and you want and require one-on-one guidance, consider it. Space is limited to check it out soon.

(And lest you worry that this is some kind of advertisement, let me reassure you: I'm not getting paid for this.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: How Katrina Does It

Day 8's goal: Learn from others.

There are as many ways to do business plans as there are creative professionals. But you wouldn't know that looking at the business planning section of your local library. So in this challenge, I've enlisted some friends and colleagues to describe the way they found their business plans and what works for them. I'm hoping one of them will inspire you.

The first comes from Katrina Ramser, who divides her time between teaching swimming to kids and adults, writing about automotive, outdoors, swimming and personal finance topics for magazines and Web sites, and writing her own blog, SquidKid. How does she keep it all straight and keep herself motivated? It turns out it came to her while on walks and while talking on the phone.

I've written formal business plans using software and I've written informal ones on napkins. I've found the plan that reads as personal as a journal entry or a letter to yourself yields the best results. You want to feel the lifeline behind your goals, or there's just no heart there to get things done.

I stumbled upon the creation of my business plan by accident. Information tripped out of my head at unreliable, or what I know now as organic, moments, such as suddenly realizing in the middle of a phone call I really wanted to accomplish X; or that I should spend more time doing Y while taking a walk.

What started out as a simple Word document with a scattering of unorganized, lonely sentences became, over time, the bones for all my now-overflowing yearly business plans.

Without my willing to toss away ideas on how a business plan should be, I wouldn't be able to give you the following solid direction:

Begin by asking yourself what the top items on your goal radar will be for the year. It could be anything, from launching a blog to bringing in 4 new clients to getting out of debt -- stuff that is first and foremost on your mind.

Bullet point them.

Now move onto more specific categories, such as Finances, Career, and Personal.

Under Finances, for example, I might have my income goal, broken down my types of services or clients and just what I expect to make from each of them. I strive to get real about locating each dollar. Here I'll also place a reminder to get my credit score or deposit $1,000 in an online account for a vacation.

What really keeps you honest and alive is following up each month.
Below these categories, leave room for the 12 months, and type in your successes. In April, for example, I accomplished doing my own taxes, securing a new client, and 400 hits on my blog.

No goal is too modest.
We have a tendency as we get older to be more critical of ourselves, and that's where the business plan motivation gets lost. Record, record, record.

Here's another way to break down your doings:

Halfway through the year and right after June's success, insert the following "check in" exercises in your plan:
  • Do a Reality Check. Wake up call statements;
  • a Give Yourself Some Credit. Pat-on-the-back tidbits; and
  • What's Really on Your Goal Radar. What you think you care most about in this 6-month reflection.
Bullet point all realizations. And at the end of the year, I also follow up with bulleting My Top Highlights; Shortcomings; and Top Items on Radar for the next year.

Your business plan is an on-going conversation you are concocting with the best parts of your selves.

Friday, December 5, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Goals vs. Actions

Day 5's goal: Focus on your part.

I asked several freelancers to tell me their biggest obstacle to creating a business plan and one of the most commonly recurring reasons was that they didn't see the point. Freelancer (and personal mentor) Conn Hallinan had this to say:
How do you make a business plan if you have no control over the means of distribution? It is the same reason peasants during the Middle Ages didn't have a business plan: they had no power over anything, plus they had to bow to their lords (just like us!). For instance: My business plan is to write four 5,000 word articles for The New Yorker at $3 a word, and an 8,000 word piece for Atlantic at $4 a word. Also I intend to produce five other magazine pieces at $2 a word, minimum 4,000 words. That's my plan, and after I have smoked this really good stuff that someone from Humboldt gave me it seems perfectly reasonable. Once the stuff wears off, it is back to begging for four magazine pieces at $1 a word, and an every other week column at $75 a pop. So, good business plan: have a partner who is too smart to try and make their living as a writer.
To which I say: Good point. We don't control the means of production. We can't make the New Yorker hire us.

Does that mean we shouldn't have business plans? I argue no, and I'll tell you why.

To use the words of business planning guru Tim Berry, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming blog post on this site, "If I'm a fisherman, I can't control how much fish I catch. But I sure as heck can control what stream I'm fishing in."

Having a business plan is not Secret-style fantasy. It isn't magic. You can't just "conceive it, believe it, receive it." You have to plan it, practice it and produce it. A business plan isn't about the end results but the steps you'll take to try to get there.

Want to write for The New Yorker? I can think of a few steps to get there:
  • Figure out who writes for them now and what path they took to get there. Are there intermediary magazines you should try to break into on the way to getting to The New Yorker?
  • Ask for an informational interview from one or two contributors. You really can. They're people just like you and me.
  • Subscribe to the magazine and the intermediary magazines.
  • Study their content to get a sense of which stories would be appropriate for them.
  • Improve your craft to bring your writing to be up to The New Yorker's standards. That may mean taking a class. It may mean experimenting with different styles. It may mean reading books. Figure out what will work for you.
And most important:
  • Query them. Every month. Even if you get a "no" every time--or worse, no response at all. I queried The New Yorker this year. They turned my story down. They were very polite about it. Nice people there at The New Yorker.
Those four steps? That's what goes on your business plan--not "write four stories for the New Yorker at $3/word." You can't control whether they buy the stories. But you can control how you act.

And there's evidence that it does work. This week I met a freelancer who said he queried a big-name magazine regularly for four years before he broke in. But he finally did. Now he writes for them regularly.

And it's true in my life. I'm close to breaking into one of my target markets because I followed the steps above. I increased my income. If the measure of your success is The New Yorker or Atlantic, you won't feel successful and a business plan will feel like a waste. But if your measure of success is progress, your business plan will help you accomplish your goals.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Checking On Progress

Day 3's goal: Reflect back.

Yesterday I wrote about what I hoped having a business plan would have done for me this year. Did it work?

My general sense is yes. I've had an incredibly abundant year. You wouldn't know by looking at my business we were in a recession this year. My income is near the highest it's ever been--whether working for myself or for someone else full-time. Plus, I've had time to do a lot of the things I love and take care of myself.

But the goal of a business plan is not to plan based on my general sense. It's to be concrete and see what worked. It's an inventory.

So let's get to brass tacks. In last year's biz plan cheat sheet, I listed six goals: an income goal, a time goal, target markets, outgoing clients, major new expenditures, and marketing goals.

Here's how they played out (with some generalities to protect a teensy bit of my privacy):

Income Goal:
Set at: A third more than my 2007 income.
Why: Calculated what I needed to live on plus goals for the year.
Result: I didn't hit the mark, but I will have increased my income by more than $10,000 this year if my projections for December are accurate.

Time Goal:
Set at: Spend five hours a week on querying. Record work hours by task (income work, non-income work, querying, and networking).
Why: To keep my business growing and break into target markets; to know how I'm spending my work time.
Result: Mostly successful. I didn't do it perfectly, but I did record my time from March through the end of the year. Aside from two weeks where I spent nine and 10 hours, respectively, querying, I didn't hit the five-hour-a-week goal.

Target Markets:
Set at: Five consumer pubs and about 20 custom publications.
Why: To do more of the work I love, to earn a sustainable income and be able to use my business to support a rich, full life.
Result: Some progress. Of the five publications, I dropped one, queried another four times, and have another publication considering a story idea after building a relationship with the editor through regular querying. The other two, I've queried only sporadically. Of the custom publications, I queried only a few.

Outgoing Clients:
Set at: Three clients who were no longer fitting in my business model.
Why: Either because of pay limitations or because my professional interests changed.
Result: Imperfect. I parted on pretty good terms with one, did one final story for the second and, for the third, I'm working on a story for right now. But I did drastically cut back with all three.

Major New Expenses:
Set at: Some personal (vacations, saving for Xmas without using a credit card, and moving); some professional (health expenses, computer repairs and an ergonomic office chair).
Why: To have a rich full life that clears my mind for great work, and to work more productively and healthfully.
Result: Mostly good. I saved enough for Xmas presents without having to go into debt and I did get to take vacations. I also saved enough money to start going to the chiropractor and see a nutritionist, which are huge for me. I'll be buying the office chair this month. The only down side? I still haven't moved.

Marketing Goals:
Set at: Send three queries a week to higher-paying markets. Do no query markets paying less than $1/word.
Why: To increase my income, do more features and write the stories that I want to write.
Result: I'm happy to say that I did this fairly consistently. There were some weeks when I didn't query at all, of course. And some weeks I queried more than the requisite three.

Now, does it mean the plan wasn't successful just because I didn't achieve all my goals? Not to me. The point of planning to guide myself in the direction I want to head--not to reach the destination. It's to help me track what that path might look like and give me some concrete steps to take to get there. I don't believe I would have accomplished what I did without the plan.

Do you have goals for those five categories? How did you do compared to what you'd hoped to accomplish this year?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Planning for Serenity

Day 2's challenge: Put serenity first in your business plan.

Last year, I wrote about business planning also. This year, I'm starting this challenge by reposting an abridged version of the following explanation of what a business plan has to do with serenity.

Serenity, in my experience, is not namby-pamby or hippy-dippy, or any other rhyming put-down. You don't have to be pure of heart or devout to achieve it, especially in business.

Instead, try this: Work on your business plan.

It's that time of year again: The end of the fourth quarter, when business owners everywhere are buying tax deductible items lest they give more money to Uncle Sam. And it's the time to plan your goals for next year. There are plenty of articles out there now browbeating you into creating a business plan. The Small Business Administration even has a whole page of tools to make your business planning easier.

If you're dragging in this department (and really, who isn't?), here are more incentives:

* As this article makes abundantly clear, lack of planning adds emotional and intellectual clutter to every day, sapping your serenity. How much money do I need to make this month? Will I need to buy a new computer this year? What do I do if my main client goes out of business/drops me? Don't worry. Decide. Put it in your business plan and then don't worry about it.

* Your business plan can add to your joy. I know, I know. "Joy" and "business plan" aren't terms that often share the same sentence. But hear me out. I took Erik Sherman's amazing business planning class a few years ago. In it, I essentially learned what mattered most to me in my work (the types of things I love to do, the clients I hated to work with, the things that brought me the most, yes, serenity) and came up with goals that would allow me to support those values, and steps to achieve those goals. By the time I got to work on creating an income plan for myself, I found I was ready to direct my earning into avenues that supported my values.

For 2008, I'm planning on creating a one-page cheat sheet of my business plan and posting it on the bulletin board behind my computer monitor. That list, as of now, will include:

* Monthly income goals;
* Monthly time goals;
* Target markets;
* Clients to replace this year;
* Major new/changing expenditures for the year; and
* Marketing goals.

Tomorrow, I'll report back on whether doing that helped me achieve what I expected it would: to guide me toward decisions that support my personal and professional fulfillment and abundance.

What business decisions have you put off making? What business items are robbing your serenity? Make a list and keep it to use as a foundation of your business plan.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Our Next Challenge: Writing a Business Plan

It's December, and that means, for me, that it's time to update my business plan.

Don't have one? You're not alone. So often, the conversations I have with other writers include questions like, "How much should I charge for this?" or "Where should I pitch that?" These are questions that a business plan can answer, and I look to my plan to tell me how much to charge, where to direct my marketing and how I want to spend my time.

But it wasn't always this way. When I started freelancing, I was a bit panicky. Sure, I'm always a little panicky, and starting your own business will make anyone even more so. I was lucky that I stumbled across Erik Sherman's Planning Your Writing Business Class. I forked over the $149 and answered questions--and even though I hadn't been freelancing for more than a few months, I came out the other side with a plan.

Since then, I've refined it and now I look at my business plan as an opportunity to expand and plan the exciting new directions my business will take next year. Do I really want to expand out into podcasting and video journalism this year, or is that just a passing fancy? Do I want to apply for fellowships? Which ones? What topics do I want to focus on next year? Do I want to go to any conferences?

By the time this 30-day challenge is over, I'll have the answers to all those questions--or at least an educated guess.

I invite you to come along with me, ask questions, propose your own answers and get a rough business plan together by Jan. 1.

So what's stopping you from creating your own business plan? If you have one, what works for you?

Friday, November 28, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge Wrap Up

In this 30-day challenge, we've learned workflow management, email management, and clutter busting. We didn't get to some of the bigger challenges, like tax organizing and that sort of thing. But I'll do another organizing challenge next year, and I hope you'll check in then.

I'd especially like to thank our guest bloggers this month: Wonderful professional organizers June Bell and Janine Adams and fung shui and design coach Alison Marks. You've been so much fun to work with and I thank you a million times for all the great suggestions you've shared for addressing a problem that stymies most of us at one time or another. I'll add links to their Web pages and blogs to the main page so you can find them in the future if you need to.

And now, a summary of what we've learned this month. Kind of like a clutter-busting table of contents:

Figuring out your organizing priorities.

Overcoming organizing overwhelm so you can get started.

Set realistic goals to avoid perfectionism and paralysis.

Organizing systems for email, filing, and mail.

Staying productive on Election Day.

Learning to let go of things you don't need anymore.

Five biggest organizing mistakes to avoid.

Identifying organizing tools and prioritizing organizing in your end-of-year shopping.

Using the buddy system to tackle the hardest organizing challenges.

Creating workflow organization.

Creating systems to manage paper.

Secrets to successful paper organizing and sorting.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge as much as I did.

As I look around my desk today, I can see a tremendous difference from the day the challenge started. I still have magazines under my table, but the massive piles to the left and right of my computer have been replaced by a plant on one side and a small pile to the left. (Progress, right?) I have a heavy-duty shredder that makes getting rid of unnecessary paper easier. And I feel better in my office.

How about you? What changes have you noticed as you've applied these principles?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Secrets to Sorting

Day 28's goal: Corral the Clutter

Yesterday, guest blogger Alison Marks shared the big picture for how to deal with paper. But then there's that moment that you're sitting there staring at all your paper and not sure how to tackle it. To address that issue, guest blogger and professional organizer June Bell is back and she's getting specific: What to keep, where to keep it and how to sort it. As always, leave comments below, or ask June questions directly by emailing her at junebell (at) aol (dot) com.

Bills. Receipts. Magazines. Catalogs. Copies. Clippings. Notes. Lists. Documents. Paper is everywhere, blanketing our tables and desks and filling our mailboxes, in boxes and out boxes.

Taking even a baby step toward conquering paper clutter may inspire you to take another and another … with increasingly positive results as you progress.

To reduce the amount of paper in your life, first, limit the amount of paper that you let in:

Junk mail. Sort mail by a recycling bin. Immediately toss anything you don’t want (for me, that’s supermarket circulars and any unsolicited ads).

Newspaper. As a veteran newspaper reporter, I hate to suggest that people ditch their subscriptions and read the paper on line. But if you’re battling piles of newsprint, this might (sob) be an option for you.

Magazines. If you’re not excited to find a new issue in your mailbox, consider canceling your subscription or not renewing it. When a new issue arrives, recycle or pass along the previous one. And instead of keeping the entire magazine, just tear out the articles you want to read or save.

Catalogs. Contact the Direct Marketing Association to have your name removed from mailing lists. You can also call catalog companies individually as you receive catalogs.

Tax-related paperwork. Set aside a shirt box or shoe box for all W-2 forms, dividend statements, 1099s (if you’re self-employed), brokerage statements, etc. Just drop them into the box throughout the year so that when you’re ready to start on your taxes, you’ll have everything you need in one place. Note: This is one category where you don’t want to discard as much as possible!

Office papers. The vast majority of what we file disappears into our filing systems, drawer or cabinets, never to emerge again. So before you routinely file (or add to a growing pile), ask yourself:

o How likely is it that I’ll need this again?
o If I do need it, can I get it somewhere else, such as from a manager, the Internet, a family member?
o What’s the worst-case scenario if I toss it?

A stack of paper usually represents a bunch of decisions you need to make: Take a cruise? Buy supplemental life insurance? Read a prospectus? So set aside time to make decisions on these items, or delegate those decisions to someone else.

Gradually you’ll reclaim the horizontal surfaces in your home or office.

Friday, November 21, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Prioritizing Paper Management

Day 27's goal: Tame the paper.

To wind up the organizing challenge, we'll be spending two days this week on paper paralysis. Today, guest blogger, life coach and feng shui consultant Alison Marks will talk about getting your paper organized. Marks is also the author of The Little Book of Sanctuary: A Beautiful Home is Simply a Choice and the forthcoming and workbook set, “From Clutter to Order in 8 Weeks.” For more information, please visit or email her at alison at InsideOutDesignCoaching dot com.

I’m a collector. And a piler. So what am I doing writing about organizing paper?

Over the years, I’ve become obsessed with systems. Having elegant systems doesn’t change my inherent nature as a piler and collector. It does, however, serve as a protective line of defense that keeps me shielded from chaos and overwhelm--at least most of the time.

A lot of people think that their world of paper is an endless black hole. The truth is that no matter how much you have, there’s only so much of it. If you learn to think in terms of systems, it’s not so hard to get organized enough to have a clear desk and be able to get your hands on anything you need quickly.

Here’s how to start:

Decide what the big chunks are.

Think about the different kinds of papers you have based on how you use and interact with them, not based on content. They really will only fall into a few (3-5) major categories – what I call “big chunks.” Most people have these big chunks:

- Active papers and files – includes anything you interact with frequently
- Storage files
- Reference files – information about topics you are interested in, sort of like a personal library
- Great ideas – used especially by business owners and people working on big projects

This will serve as the big framework for your organizing system. Now you know the first question to ask yourself when you want to find something or put something away: “Is it an active item, a reference item or a storage item?”

Do a gross sort.

Gather all your papers and sort them into the big chunks. This means all your papers – yes, every single sheet. Your mail, magazine articles, old files, old letters, great work ideas, conference notes, random business cards, post-it notes, financial files and papers – ALL of it.

I recommend investing in some bankers boxes for this task. They are easy to drop things into, easy to temporarily label, easy to stack up when you need to take a break, and usable for storage once you get things further sorted.

As you’re sorting, you’re likely notice that you want to start creating subcategories. By all means go ahead and do that where it will help you right now (for example, you may want to have a box for things with a deadline that you need to tackle soon). Otherwise, don’t get caught up in sorting within the big chunks yet.

Map it out.

Where does it make sense for each of your chunks to live? Think in terms of how you work. Your long-term storage files can go in the garage, while bills to be paid should be kept together at hand near your desk. Physically move the boxes to that area.


Now that you’ve gone through all your papers, you have a sense of both what kinds of things you have and how much of them you have. Now your job is to find the best home for each group of like items. Containers are anything that hold something else – files, boxes, binders, desk drawers, racks, shelves, sections of things, boxes, etc.


There’s something magical about labels.
Even if you’re the only one using the space, labeling all the homes with a description of what lives inside will help you locate what you’re looking for and will ensure that your system stays in good working order. Labels also help you recognize when your papers are creeping over and above their containment zone. That way, you'll know when you need to make changes in the system to accommodate your constantly changing reality.

Set up a good in-box system.

Practice good time management habits that help you stay on top of current to-do items and maintain your system over time. There are many good systems out there – one I like is David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

There are a lot of ways to make this process more complicated, but it rarely needs to be. Being aware of how your systems support you and following these simple steps will help you get a handle on your paper once and for all!

Monday, November 17, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Flow Through Work

Day 22's goal: Create a workflow plan

Every Sunday night I sit at my computer in the quiet of the waning weekend (can you tell I don't have kids?) and fill out my plan for the week.

I started doing this because of a very big problem: I was coming up against deadlines and realized I didn't know what I needed to finish. Or, I'd forget that edits were likely on stories I'd already filed. I'd turn in a story and become resentful when I needed to drop everything to make a few follow-up phone calls.

Now that's crazy. Edits, as any writer knows, are a very important part of the job.

What I realized was that I didn't resent the work. I resented myself for not allowing time for it. When I started this challenge, I got a lot of questions about creating time for marketing, time for invoicing and other administrative work like scanning and shredding or addressing mail, time for the gym, and time for personal things.

This chart is how I make time--and make my priorities.

My method is very basic--a Word document marked with eight columns. For you, it might work better to do it in Excel, in ACT or in your Blackberry's calendar function. The key is that whatever system you will use is the right one for you.

This is my low-tech solution, and these are what the columns include:

Column 1: Client/assignment.

On my form it comes out something like, "Chron-nabe" or "TMG-GINA." Any shorthand that helps me easily identify the project.

Column 2: Final deadline.

Self explanatory. It allows me to include both stories I've filed but for which I have expected edits and those for which I haven't invoiced. Everything stays on there until I send the invoice.

Column 3: This week.

Under this heading, I list what needs to be accomplished this week. For stories I've turned in, I always write, "Poss. edits"--possible edits--to remind me that work is not done. For stories I haven't begun, this usually means researching or contacting sources.

Columns 4-8: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

For each day, I write what I expect to accomplish or what I need to accomplish to stay on-target for my deadline. It also allows me to see that if I have three deadlines, as I do this week, I need to stagger writing them. That way I don't end up frantic and trying to draft three stories in one day.

How Many Rows?

I include a row for each assignment, from inception to invoicing, but also have ongoing tasks that get their own rows--so named because that's what I list as the deadline. It's not that they're not important. It's that they're always due. These include: Querying, Gym, Networking, Admin and Personal.

It reminds me that 1) these are real priorities and need to be scheduled in; and 2) I need to find time to do them every week. This is not optional.

In those "ongoing" rows, I include what days I'll hit the gym or go to yoga, include lunches scheduled with editors, days to scan clips and file old docs, etc.

How It Could Work for You:

Organize your rows.

Start by listing your deadlines by date. On my current list, I have an assignment that was due on Sept. 12 and one due Dec. 16. On the former, I'm waiting for edits, and I use the schedule to remind myself to drop a note to the editor. On the latter, I remind myself to get started this week seeking sources so I'm not slammed as people leave for the holidays.

After the deadline rows, I have the ongoing rows. On those, I remind myself to draft the update to my Web site, write posts to this blog and remind myself that my friend's birthday is on Thursday and need to buy her a present.

Get specific

It's not enough to just say I'm going to query this week in the query row. For me, it helps to list the specific query I'm going to send and the queries I'll follow up on.

The same goes for contacting sources in the deadline rows. I try to write which sources I'm going to call (listed by abbreviation to save space). That takes some of the crisis out of figuring out what to do next when I'm busy.

Make it visible

After finishing the chart, I print two copies. One goes on the bulletin board above my computer monitor, where I can look at it all day long if I choose. The other goes in my planner. It's small enough that it fits just fine.

Do it daily

The real gift of this list is that it saves me time when I make my to-do list for the day. (Not a list person? Sorry. This is the only way I can ever hope to get anything done.) When I fill out my to-do list for the following day--I write mine in the evening so I don't have to think about it when I get up in the morning--I transfer what I haven't accomplished today along with what my chart tells me I need to do. That way, I have a fighting chance to stay prompt with all my work and out of chaos and drama.

This, my friends, is the real source of much of my work serenity. Include everything, schedule it, and try your best to stick to it.

What works for you to keep yourself on-track in work and life?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Buddy Up

Day 17's goal: Get Help and Have Fun

Ever feel like you're on the losing end when you try to face down a pile of clutter? Maybe it's because you're doing it alone. Today, the fantastic organizer June Bell is back with another entry in her ongoing guest-blogging series on the fundamentals of organizing. This time, it's about safety--and effectiveness--in numbers. If you have questions directly for June, feel free to email her at junebell at aol dot com. Otherwise, leave a comment below.

You’ve got a friend …

A big part of my job as a professional organizer is to be an empathetic listener, a fresh pair of eyes and a low-key encourager. You probably take on those roles from time to time for a friend, colleague or partner. So if either of you needs help getting organized, you can tap one another for support.

Here are some ideas:

 Smashin’ fashion show:

Hang the contents of your closet on a clothes rack and ask a trusted friend – the one who’s French, always well dressed, or works in a boutique (or all three!) – to suggest some new outfits using the separates you own. Also ask her to flag any garments, shoes and accessories that look dated, shabby or worn. Don’t argue with her. Just discard or donate them.

 Two’s company:

If you dread tackling stacks of paper in your home office or fear getting your tax papers ready for April 15, find a friend in the same boat. Work together at your home to halve the burden of filing and sorting. Then commit to meet at his house to do the same for him.

 I’ve got your back:

There’s no one like a good friend to help you become a better version of yourself. That might mean getting you back on track when you’re slipping or helping you acquire a new, positive habit. When you’re out shopping and begin eyeing yet another black sweater, this friend will kindly remind you that you already have at least six similar items in your closet. This very same friend will, for your birthday, upload your favorite ‘80s songs onto your iPod so you can discard those dusty cassette tapes under your bed.

 Set a goal together:

If you’re both committed to reducing clutter or using a new calendar to better manage time, work together to achieve your aim. Break down the steps you’ll each need to follow to meet the goal, set a timetable for action and then check in with each other daily, every few days or weekly to chart progress. Make sure to set an appealing reward that you’ll both enjoy upon achieving your mission. Having a “goal buddy” lets you draw energy from your pal’s motivation even when you don’t feel so enthusiastic.

Next week: So much for a paperless society. Despite our reliance on (and addiction to) e-mail, we’re still deluged with paper. I’ll have some tips on how to manage it, organize it and control it.

I can vouch for the goal buddy idea. I have one of those, and have used her to help me make scary phone calls to my student loans, to help me face my taxes and other scary tasks. And I've sat there and helped another goal buddy face down the clutter on his desk. It really works.

Have you ever had a friend help you with your organizing? How'd it go? Would you do it again?

What keeps you from inviting a friend or partner into your disorganized space?