Friday, December 21, 2007

Repeat after me

And I repeat this mantra:

I am not my work.

As a self-employed person, this can be a hard nut to swallow. Our livelihoods depend on our work. And, if you're like me, you love your work. You coddle it. It's your baby--sometimes a colicky, maddening baby, but a baby you love no less.

What I am is the system of values, thoughts and behaviors that produce the product that is my work.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Recovering from Rejection

If you're running any kind of successful business at all, you're getting rejections. Because you're trying.

Still, sometimes nothing is harder to stomach than that most recent 'not at this time,' or simple silence. The obvious question--Why didn't they like it?--can quickly spin into How will I be able to pay my bills next month? (Because despite my general financial abundance, in my mind I'm always one check away from a spot in a homeless shelter.) Or it can easily become, This client has clearly seen into my soul and knows it's tarnished. (Because I think all creative people harbor some fear that we are can't hack it.)

Recently I got a one-two punch of rejections: one of a query and one with constructive criticism of a recent assignment. Both came from clients I love and with whom I have a steady, friendly relationship. Still, those emails bruised.

After my night of self-pity in front of some god-awful reality show, I knew that letting myself stay in that place will debilitate me.

So how to cope?

Well, one way is to consider the yogic concept of aparigraha--that is, nongrasping. In a past issue of Yoga Journal, Sally Kempton retells Ram Das's great story about this concept:

[Das] was telling a famous anecdote about the way you catch a monkey in India. You drop a handful of nuts into a jar with a small opening, he explained. The monkey puts his hand into the jar, grabs the nuts, and then finds that he can't get his fist out through the opening. If the monkey would just let go of the nuts, he could escape. But he won't.

Attachment leads to suffering, Ram Dass concluded. It's as simple as that: Detachment leads to freedom.

So the logical conclusion would be to separate the facts in those emails from those other bigger fears:

My financial serenity doesn't actually depend on that one assignment. That's what my business plan is for.

And one email from a client with constructive criticism of one story doesn't mean I can't hack this job. Those bigger fears, about financial security, talent and self-confidence are always there because they belong to me. They'll grasp onto any transient event to make themselves known to me--and to make me suffer.

My job is to pry their grubby little fingers off my worry-sick heart.

Simple clarity gets me half-way there, if I can let it in. The pry bar I use to separate fact from fear is meditation, which calms the mind, and deep breathing exercises that soothe the nervous system. My favorite goes this way:

Sit upright in a chair, bed, etc., and breath in deeply through your nose. Fill your chest with air.
At the top of the inhale, pause for three seconds.
Exhale deeply through your mouth. Try to make your exhale longer than your inhale.
At the bottom of the exhale, pause for three seconds.

Then I write about those fears. I talk to other business owners about it and remind myself that I'm not the only one who feels that way.

The next thing, always, is to take action.

I can't use this rejection, real or imagined, to opt out of my business plan, which calls for three queries a week. So I send my third for the week and let the rest go.

Now that we've detached from the crazy associations between innocuous rejections and the big monkeys of fear and self-doubt, I think it's time to tackle that first question again:

Why didn't they like it?

For my own sanity and serenity, I need to make an honest appraisal of why my marketing effort didn't fly. Has the publication done something similar recently? Is it not timely enough? Does it need to be tweaked or finessed somehow?

Mostly, the reasons queries sell are mysterious to me. I often think that the sun has to be aligned with the stars just so, and the light has to be hitting the editor at just the right time, after just the right amount of coffee, for a query to sell. So, who knows? Really, unless the editor tells you, it's best not to assume it's you.

The key here is to ask yourself a different question: What can I learn from this situation?

And then move on.

And enjoy your holiday.

De-stressing on the Job

Dr. Herbert Benson is a very smart man. So smart, in fact, that he's founded his own mind-body medicine center at Mass General Hospital in Boston.

There are some great resources here for mini relaxation techniques and exercises that can loosen up your body on the job. But what I was most interested in was his list of ways to avoid job stress.

Among them are some concrete tips that no doubt help:

* Eat breakfast every morning.
* Ocassionally mix up your breakfast routine by starting the day with a leisurely breakfast with a coworker.
* Organize your work priorities.
* Speak up about petty annoyances.
* Optimize your health with good nutrition, sleep and rest.
* Don't try to do 2 or 3 things at a time.

Others are more metaphysical, like:

* Look at unavoidable stress as an avenue for growth and change.

I love that one because it reminds me that stress is inevitable. In fact, stress can be good. The challenge there, and the work, is to figure out what's avoidable stress and what's not--and then letting go of resisting the unavoidable. It's a paradigm shift that requires regular attention.

There are many others, and you should check them out for yourself. See which ones you're good at and which you'd like to add to your serenity toolbox.

But then there is at least one of the easier-said-than-done variety.

* Don't try to be perfect. Don't feel like you have to do everything.

This, I think, is the crux of avoidable--and toxic--stress. At least for me. How do we do that, though? Perhaps some of the other tips will help:

* Develop a coworker support network: If you have friends in your industry with whom you can share your frustrations or, hey, if you can create a blog about it, you're less likely to be alone with that crazy voice in your head that tells you that you aren't doing enough and so you aren't enough.

* Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for help: The more you try to do it alone, the more you're likely to believe you have to--and that whatever you do has to be perfect.

* Take deep breaths when you're feeling stressed.

How do you tackle the easier-said-than-done stress-busting axioms?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Serenity Tip: Stopping the Food Fight

Recently, a freelancer asked a very smart question, which boiled down to:

How do I generate the energy to do my work without resorting to sugar highs or caffeine addiction?

During this holiday season, you may be engaging in the annual ritual of fighting with yourself about your eating. This isn't just a waistline issue. Sitting at a desk all day and eating sugary treats creates that sugar-high-sugar-coma crash that can kill your productiving and--yes--increase your anxiety about getting your work done. A more sane and serene way of dealing with getting energy is the stuff that every nutritionist will tell you: keep almonds and an apple in your desk for that craving hour (for me, it's 3 p.m.). Get some exercise. Take a break when you need it.

I'm not just preaching. As someone who has lost 85 pounds in the past four years, I walk this talk every day. For me, it means that I don't eat processed sugar at all anymore. And I survive! In fact, after a little bit, I don't really miss it. It's the constantly having a little taste and then trying to restrain myself that makes me crazy, not giving it up entirely. And, actually, as soon as I gave up sugar my energy level shot up, I assume because I wasn't stressing my body with major insulin fluctuations.

But don't panic. I'm not telling you that you have to give up sugar. What I'm saying is that having sane energy--that doesn't make you crash later--is possible.

In a Yahoo! Hot Jobs story I did recently, I talked to experts about how to avoid poor eating at work. Here's one of my favorite quotes:

"People are most successful in healthy eating when they can control their environment, as opposed to being in a negative environment and trying to control themselves," says nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge, author of "Diet Simple."

The good news is, as the boss, you have the ability to control your work environment: You can plan snacks and work events that feature healthy food instead of junk food. You have the ability to plan your meals ahead.

The problem, of course, is that as a self-employed person who may work at home, you might be tempted to rest at work by hitting the fridge that's full of kids' snacks, leftovers and sugary treats. Here's how I deal with it, because I live in a house with all that stuff, too:

My office is on the other side of the house from the kitchen. This cuts down on temptation and frees me from the dreaded smell of other people cooking. If it's possible for you to do so, claim a room far from your kitchen for your work space.

Distract yourself
I find that if I distract myself for 15 minutes from my cravings, they pass. The same goes for coping with writer's block. Instead of heading to the kitchen when I hit a patch of writer's block or when 3 p.m. roles around, I visit my favorite guilty-pleasure Web sites. For me, those are:

* Cute Overload
* Go Fug Yourself, for all your catty fashion needs.
* SFist, but any -ist near you will work.

This is both a way to increase energy and to cope with the draw of sugary treats. Victoria Strauss on the Writer Beware! blog recently featured a study that found that people who exercise are more creative for the hour or two after they've exercised. As a general rule, I try to make it to the gym two to three times a week during the day. Instead of detracting from my work, this study shows what I've experienced: my work is augmented, not injured, by my exercise break.

The same goes for yoga. A morning yoga routine full of energizing poses like warrior, camel or side angle pose can get the blood flowing and give you a different kind of jolt than that sugar-and-caffeine bomb of an energy drink.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Serenity Tip: Estimate your taxes

I did something this weekend that I've never done before:

I asked my accountant to estimate how much, if any, taxes I should expect to pay in April.

I've been paying my quarterly taxes faithfully, but since my income went up this year, I'm unclear if I may need to pay more come April.

This estimate is especially important right now, in the waning days of FY 2007. There's office equipment I want to buy. I have fantasies of new software, hardware and some fun things, like that flat-screen cinema display I don't really need but would be awful sweet to look at every day. And then there's the health necessities: ergonomic desk and chair. In other words, I could spend all the money I have saved or taxes and still want more.

For me to do this office equipment spending sanely, I need to avoid using a credit card. I know--fiscal blasphemy! How ever will I survive?!--Well, I'll tell you: I haven't used a credit card for more than a year now and I haven't had any calamities that have required plastic. So as I consider stocking my office with all the newest and greatest, I know that serenity will come from doing so in a sane, manageable way that doesn't increase my debt burden next year.

That's where my accountant comes in:

I send him my estimated income for the year. (Which I have, happily, because I've been working hard this year on maintaining clarity about every penny that comes in.)

I sent him my estimated spending for the year. (Actually, except for the spending I have yet to do at the end of this month, it's more like actual because I use a little Walgreens notebook to record my spending daily, personal and professional.)

And now I wait to find out: Should I save more? Is there money for office equipment? And if so, how much is available?

This is very exciting for me. In the past, I would have spent blindly and hoped that money would appear to cover it. I'd be scrimping and saving next year for this year's taxes, and then worry about being able to pay my quarterlies. I'm hopping off that merry-go-round.

Not trying to guess not only keeps me current with our friends at the IRS, but keeps me much, much more serene.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Serenity Tip: Invoice Tracking

If you're anything like me, by about the 15th of the month you start getting nervous about money. Since my income comes in in drips and drabs, my daily trip to the mailbox can feel like scaling the Andes. By the time I get there, I'm exhausted from my mental machinations: If I get this check in today, all is right with the world. I'm making it! I'm doing it! If not: Oh my god, I'm going to starve! Who am I fooling thinking I can do this for years on end?

Now, as someone who has been doing this for a few years now, I have to say: Jump off that treadmill, and fast.

There is one thing I've found that relieves this particularly tenacious brand of crazy:

I can't overstate how important clarity is to my serenity. It gives me a sense of whether what I'm feeling is something I should really be worrying about or whether it's just a way I rob myself of serenity in the name of preparing for the worst.

For me, clarity in this case means keeping a Microsoft Word doc of my monthly income, expenses, etc. (I just re-save the same document with a different name every month.) Here's what' most important for keeping me clear about whether I need to be worrying about money. I keep a section that's called "Expected vs. Actual income." In it, I include the following categories:

* Client from whom I'm expecting a check this month
* Expected income
* Actual income
I keep this category blank till the check arrives, obviously; this category is helpful in showing me how often clients meeet payment deadlines and how often they don't. It's good info to have when I work on my business plan for the next year. If they don't pay on time, that's a factor I take into account when I decide which clients to keep and which to forgo in the coming year.
* Expected date the check will arrive
This estimate is based on past payment performance--that is, how quickly has this client paid in the past?--and what's stated in my contract. Actual performance always carries more weight.
* Actual date the check arrived.
This one is useful in the same way that "Actual income" is useful in my future business planning.

So when I woke up this morning and felt the anxiety rising in my chest about my income, I clicked open that document and took a gander. Here's what I found:

* I'm only missing three checks.
* One will arrive next week, so don't worry about that.
* One, I called the client already to inquire about it and if it doesn't arrive today, I'll call to check in again.
* The other is outstanding for two months.

Instead of feeling like a victim of my freelance life, I picked up the phone. I called Accounts Payable for that company and asked about it.

"Email me your invoice," said the very nice lady on the other end of the line. "I'm cutting checks today and I'll cut one for you, too."

Well, thank you.

See? How hard was that? I tell myself.

The answer: It's both harder and easier to pick up the phone and get clarity than it is to sit here and complain about how beleaguered I am. Harder, because it requires me to face the music. I might have to face the fact that it won't come in this month, either. Easier because once I did that, I released a tremendous amount of energy, that I can now spend on my work instead of on worrying.

Try it and see how it works for you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Serenity Privilege

I just got off the phone with source for an unrelated story. When I mentioned this blog and somewhat self-satisfiedly mentioned that my goal with it is "encourage people to do work they love, and that will increase serenity serenity," she dropped this bomb:

"Well, you're coming from a place of privilege, then, aren't you."

Ouch. And, true.

Once I got past my eensy bit of offense, I understood what she meant: That to be able to choose work you love is a privilege in a culture where most people have to take any job they can to pay the bills. She added that it takes a lot more work to find serenity in the latter situation.

I mention this here because I think a lot of self-employed people are in this position: We may be the masters of our domain because we can add or drop clients at will, but most of us aren't making enough money to drop any client who pisses us off, doesn't respond to emails promptly or pays late. Most of us need to take the work offered to us because we aren't making enough money to even live on. In my industry, I've heard that the average yearly income is something like $5,000. So people earning that amount don't really have the privilege to say no.

So, two thoughts:

First, I think it's important to differentiate between the anxiety of deprivation and a true inability to support yourself. I know a lot of freelancers take work that doesn't feed them because of fear, not reality. To them, I still say letting go of work can create serenity.

But second, this source said that it's still possible to find serenity if you're in a position of being unable to choose your clients. "It's more Buddhist," she said. "It takes a greater strength of character."

Not long ago, I was earning considerably less than I'm earning now. And I still worked on my serenity. Some of that serenity came from just knowing that there was a real reason for my stress. Yes, I don't have enough money this month. Yes, I need to spend more energy finding stop-gap solutions to my cash flow problems while also focusing on the future.

During that time, harm reduction was especially important for me. I tried to contain my overworking. I took baths. I gave myself enough sleep and healthy food. I tried not to make things harder on myself. That, to me, was the closest I could come to serenity.

Then, I focused on what I could control: how many queries am I sending out this week? Am I targetting higher paying clients or the same old clients who aren't paying me enough right now? Where am I spending what little energy I have left?

What are your ways of creating serenity when you are trapped by your income?

Serenity Enemy: Deprivation

As I go into planning my business's year in 2008, I am experiencing a familiar feeling:


Recently, I did a story for the San Francisco Chronicle on homeowners feelings of deprivation as the housing market implodes. Though I'm not in that situation, I think the way therapist Bill Horstman describes deprivation's effects apply to business owners, too.

Do you have any of these symptoms?

1. Sleep disturbances: "If you find yourself trying to go to sleep or waking up (thinking about finances), that's usually one of the first signs" of stress. Horstman recommends sleeping pills, but I'll share my own recommendation: meditation.

I've heard it said that you should meditate every day, except when you're stressed. Then you should meditate twice a day. When I've been in a particularly rough patch with work or waiting for checks to come in, I meditate in the morning and at night. Especially the nighttime meditation seems to ease me into sleep. While I'm meditating, I imagine opening my fist and letting all my concerns drop into the ether. I do this as often and as long as I need to to relax.

2. Overworking: "If folks are constantly in a state of financial woes, they will skip the activities that have historically been their own private mental, spiritual and social way of relaxing," he said. "Instead, they step on the gas of more work. Although this may atone their sense of guilt, it causes burn out and actually decreases work productivity. Thus, the more hours worked, the less accomplished."

Sound familiar? He doesn't offer solutions here, but this is exactly why I put "gym" and "meditation" and "yoga" on my to-do list every single day. I have to create artificial boundaries around work, lest I allow myself to sink into the mire of my own worry. This is where, I think, you develop that serenity muscle to which I'm so fond of referring.

3. Isolating: All small-business owners fret over cash flow. It's an occupational hazard. But when was the last time you sat down with a group of similarly-employed people and vented about that check that's late or your own poor planning? Turns out, that's normal, too--especially for stressed people worried about others' opinions.

"If people have seen you as upper-middle class or being able to do just fine and suddenly you feel in trouble financially, you may not want to break what you think is others' image of you," advised Horstman. "So people withdraw from their social group. It's a shame because if they went to friends and said, 'I feel god-awful, what are you feeling?' they're likely to find that people aren't that judgmental."

So lay it on me: What's your work stress? What's your money stress? Don't hold it in!

4. Canceling vacations: Are you cutting out your holiday vacation for fear that spending money now will mean less money later? Don't do it, warned Horstman.

"People think it's a good idea to cut back on vacations but the real thing to do is cut back on the way you vacation--not the vacation itself," said Horstman. "It's stress reduction and a type of self-care, but it's also getting your mind off things. If you go on a camping trip, you'll feel great and you'll be refreshed. Generally, the less it costs, the more relaxing and fun it is, and then you won't have to pay for it with future guilt and worry."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Serenity Tip: Gratitude

If you're like most self-employed people, you've already considered or finished sending out your holiday cards to key clients. Whether you're having cards custom designed with your logo or sending ready-made cards with a non-denominational message, I have a suggestion for you:

Say thank you to two important groups: Those self-employed people in your field who've enriched your business life this year and your clients.

Fellow writers

Looking at my marketing efforts, it remains true that most of my work comes from networking. Sometimes it's intentional networking, but usually, the contacts come from casual conversations with people I already love.

I consider sending them a holiday card with genuine thanks a gift not just to them, but also to myself. Doing so reminds me that none of us become successful on our own. We all benefit from the help and guidance of others.


Sure, sending holiday cards is a great way to get your name in front of a harried editor or otherwise busy client. But it shouldn't just be that. When I first started freelancing a few years ago, I didn't really understand this. But recently, I did a story for Yahoo! Hot Jobs on giving your boss a holiday present that made it more clear.

The best piece of advice I got was from Jo Bennett at New York firm Battalia Winston:

The best reason to give your boss a gift is to thank him or her for a specific act of kindness during the year that went "above and beyond the call of duty," Bennett said.

"Maybe your boss smoothed over a particular issue you had with a customer," she suggested. "Or maybe your boss gave you some great career advice. In that case, give something small with a nice card of genuine thanks."

Now I get it. In my holiday cards, I try to be as specific as possible about what I enjoyed about our working relationship this year: a specific story she assigned, her quick responsiveness or the opportunity to write a story you've been dreaming of for years. It's a joy.

So when you send holiday cards, consider not just sending them to people who sign your checks, but also to people who make those client relationships possible. They are, perhaps, the most important people in your business life.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Serenity Question: Finding Serenity Insurance

A self-employed friend recently asked this question:

For God's sake, I've been a professional writer for more than 20 years now. Granted, I've only been doing consumer magazines for about 5....but still! Many of my articles are still keeping me awake at night with anxiety.

Any of you pros...did you eventually get over this????

I'm a perfectionist and a worrier. I worry that this will be the last story an editor will assign to me because THIS time, I won't get the right sources. Or I'll miss the important points they wanted. Or I'll do lazy reporting.

And I worry about deadlines. I never miss them, but I often feel totally overwhelmed by them even though I'm organized and keep meticulous lists--to the point where I'm thinking about work almost every second of the day and unable to enjoy hanging out with my kids.

I want to be a freelancer who ENJOYS the flexibility of the work and schedules, not one who is feeling more shackled to my work then I did when I was in corporate America.

Any advice? And I'm getting over bronchitis, too, which I often get at this time of year and when I working hard. Maybe it's the meds making me crazy. Talk me off the ledge??
Self-Employed Stresscase

Dear Self (ha!),

Boy, what self-employed person hasn't stressed about their work to distraction? It's kind of a hazard of the self-employment biz. But it doesn't have to rob you of serenity and time with your family. As I said in my last post, it's that drive for perfection (and perfection's unrealistic demands on our time and energy) that makes us both successful and robs us of serenity.

It is possible to get good sleep, though. I feel much less anxiety about my work today than I did as a full-time newspaper reporter. I think the difference for me is time and clarity.

As a newspaper reporter, it was always deadline time, and the encouragement I got to take my time and double-check things was always counterbalanced by the need for it now, now NOW! I know now that my anxiety was caused by failing to take the time to double or even triple-check things if I wasn't certain they were dead-on right. For me, if I know I've done that--and can remind myself I've done that--I sleep much easier.

As a freelancer, because I have to manage my own time more now than when I was a staff person, I've gotten clear about how much time each story takes. I break it into six sections:

--Marketing: For me, this is contacting editors and sending story queries.

And then there's the work involved in actually doing the assignment. In my field, I break it down to:
--Research: Online, in person, via books, it's whatever it takes for me to get a grasp of the subject matter and figure out which sources I'm going to contact. If this is a topic with which I have a lot of experience, it's quick work.
--Writing: I figure almost any story takes at least an hour to write, and many, if they're features, take about eight hours or writing, rewriting, and self-editing.

For most jobs, then there's quality assurance. In my case, it's:

--Fact-checking: For me, the stress of making a mistake is what kept me up at night, or woke me from a dead sleep. So I think of this as my serenity insurance. Even if a client has a fact-checker, I'll often call and double-check facts or ask questions about quotes if they are at all vague in my notes. Here, I need to pay attention to my gut:

* What's keeping me awake?
* What's causing fretting?
* Is it realistic?
* What can I do about it?
* Who do I need to talk to?

The more I do this, the more I find my gut is right on.

And the final step, after the project has been turned in:

--Edits: Changes, questions, etc.

Knowing this process and myself, I try to finish stories at least one day before they're due so I can fact-check. If I don't get it done in time to fact-check, I let my editor know that all the facts are true to my knowledge, but if they don't have a fact-checker, let me know and I'll fact-check it myself. Or, I double-check facts after I file the story and when it comes back for edits, I make the changes and let my editor know why I'm changing it. My clients love this because they feel they're getting high quality and, again, it's saving them time and stress.

And the final part that insures my serenity is to acknowledge for myself that I've addressed every reasonable concern I have. After that, I have to just remind myself over and over again that I'm not a mind-reader and any changes my editor makes will likely improve the story.

I'm willing to grow and learn. And I can't control what an editor thinks of my work. All I can do is manage my side of things and learn how to do my job better. This is key. I can make myself crazy with self-doubt. But I have to consciously decide against it.

And, frankly, I think you asking this question is a great way to get relief!

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Serenity of Saying No

As any workaholic knows, saying "no" is not in our vocabulary. We want to please. We thrill at surpassing our clients' expectations, even in terms of how much work we can take on. We enjoy the accolades, the approval and, of course, the income.

But when we're alone, the truth sinks in: Our clients' approval and even the money don't do anything to assuage the nagging feeling of falling behind, and the fear that the more work we do, the lower its quality. We push aside things in our personal life to make room for work (We tell ourselves, "I don't need to go to the gym today" or "I can skip time with my family to finish this project, just this once"). We feel like we're always letting someone down.

Not long ago, I did a story for Yahoo! Hot Jobs on improving work boundaries. One of my favorite pieces of advice in that story comes from Susan Newman, the author of The Book of No:
"It's wonderful to be the go-to person to a point -- until you find you're totally overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful and in a time crunch.... Setting workplace boundaries means you will be doing better work and not spreading yourself all over the lot."

Her advice is to track your yeses, set priorities and then tell people (in this case clients) that you're changing your boundaries. Elsewhere, I've heard this described as the three A's:

Become Aware
You can't make a change until you know what's wrong. So for the next week, just pay attention to the work you say yes to and how you feel. Are you resentful? Are you anxious that the work won't help pay the bills? Are you blackmailing yourself because you're afraid you'll lose the client if you say no this once?

See how it feels in your body. Then:

Accept it
Accept that, like it or not, this assignment--or future assignments like it--isn't working for you. It's no one's fault. You're client isn't wrong for offering you the work, and you're not bad for being unable to do it for whatever reason. It's just a fact. For the next week, sit with that fact.

And finally:

Take Action
If your clients aren't paying you enough, explain that you've just revised your business plan and you need to earn $X on this project in order to spend the time on it--and produce the quality--it deserves. Ask for a raise. Ask for a new deadline. And, if all else fails, say no to new assignments, kindly and with the caveat that if something changes you'd love to work with them again. Then you may need to take another action: reevaluate your client list and look for clients that better match your skills and interests. And then start doing the work to land them as clients.

This creates space for newer, more appropriate work and strengthens my resolve to seek out only the work that feeds me. Then, the work you take on is done with loving kindness and gratitude instead of under the gun and rushed. And it's done with some measure of serenity.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Righting the Resistance

Yesterday, I wrote about how having a business plan can create serenity. But anyone who's ever contemplated actually putting a business plan into action knows it's not that simple.

The first lesson in getting to serenity is that it doesn't feel serene at first. Far from it.

After creating my business plan--which includes amazingly abundant things like an income goal beyond what I've ever earned, treating myself to ergonomic office equipment and moving in with my beloved--my body pushed back. I felt fluish. My throat swelled. I was sleepy. I couldn't concentrate. Worst of all, my work suffered.

I fretted: Can I really do it? Can I pull this off long-term? What if I fail? What if I'm humiliated? What if this proves that I've been a fraud all along?

Now, if I simply reacted to this distress, I might think I was pushing too hard, too fast. I might think, "Let's not set such an ambitious income goal. Let's leave it up to the freelancing gods." I might take care of myself by not taking care of my true needs.

Luckily, I'm working on a story about how the impostor syndrome can cripple one's career. Thank you, freelance gods.

So I didn't take it too seriously, but I did take my anxiety seriously enough to ask:

* Where do these fears originate?
* Is there anything I can learn from them?
* Are they realistic?
* What will happen if I "fail" to reach my income and other goals?

The answer? My fears aren't realistic. Sure, I could fail, but I'd be no worse off than I am right now--and I'm doing pretty well right now. And most important, I relaxed into this knowledge:

Guess what? Whatever it is that you've been longing for? This is how you get it.

That pain? That feeling of coming out of your skin, that dramatic, "I couldn't possibly do that!" feeling?

Well, have your Norma Desmond moment, and then remember: This is what it feels like to stretch the serenity muscle, making it stronger and more flexible for the next time you want to grow your business.

How do you deal with resistance to growing your business?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Planning for 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.

Next year, I'll report back on whether doing that helps me achieve what I expect it will: to guide me toward decisions that support my personal and professional fulfillment and abundance.

Planning for Serenity

Serenity, in my experience, doesn't appear out of thin air. It's not the result of hours of meditation on a mountaintop (although meditation, on a mountaintop or otherwise, can't hurt) or prayers. Serenity 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.

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 figuring out what deductible items to spend their money on lest they give it to Uncle Sam instead. 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.

If you're dragging in this department (and really, who isn't?), here's more incentive: As this article makes abundantly clear, lack of planning means you spend too much time making decisions instead of focusing on ways to fulfill your vision for your business. And that time-suck robs you of serenity.

Here's another reason: Making a business plan can amplify your serenity not just by clearing your mind of decisions laid out in your business plan, but by directing you towards a more fulfilling life. It does that by guiding you towards making business decisions that are in keeping with your most cherished values. I took an amazing business planning class taught by Erik Sherman a few years ago that essentially started with asking me to list my most important values and then goals that would allow me to support those values. By the time I got to work on creating an imcome plan for myself, I found that I was ready to direct my earning into avenues that support my values. Therefore, a lot of the area where I focused my energy in the past year has been:

a) Writing about simple ways people improve their lives and those around them;
b) yoga; and
c) Increasing my income.

They aren't mutually exclusive, and making a business plan helped me become more conscious of that and start acting on that.

For 2008, I'm planning on creating a short 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; and
* Marketing goals.

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

Then, with

The Serenity of Support

Serenity is a funny thing. One minute I'm feeling balanced and feeling that my behavior is in alignment with my goals; the next minute, deadlines are starting to overwhelm me.

The funny thing is, deadlines aren't what rob me of serenity. My judgments of myself and how I think my clients see me are the real culprits. They'll get me every time.

Of course it matters what your clients think of you. As Rachel Weingarten pointed out in a story I did on work gossip, your reputation is your stock in trade as a self-employed person. Projecting confidence and having the skills to back it up are what separate you from the competition.

But I'm always surprised at how human my clients are. I went into freelancing thinking that because I'm working remotely (and I have this reputation to protect), my job was to turn in a perfect first draft without asking my editor any questions.

The first part is true. The second part? Not so much. The longer I'm in this business, the more I know that editors want to help me draft the best possible story. They want to nip problems in the bud before they have to root them out themselves in the edit process.

So I've taken to including my editors in my process. This requires me violate my personal dogma that editors want to see me as capable, intuitive and, above all, perfect. They don't want me to be perfect. They want me to ask for help. And when I do, it inevitably leads me to a better story and a closer relationship with that editor.

Now, I'm not talking about asking for direction at every step of the process. That would be cloying.

Here are some examples of how I've done it:

* With one recent client, I was hunting for "regular people" to profile. My editor provided me with one name and when I contacted her, I learned she's going to be on the cover of the same magazine in a few months. Red flags waved in front of me but in the past I would have ignored them, assuming my editor knew about it and wanted this woman in the story anyway. This time, I told my editor and I was rewarded with both a "Good catch!" and a "You rock!"

* I'm working on another story in which the sources are too busy to call me back. My instinct was to keep badgering them and try to force them to call me back. Instead, I called my editor and asked for other suggestions and direction. She happily provided me with more sources and now I have most of the information I need to write that story.

* With a final client, I'm writing a summary of some survey results. When I sat down to start writing, I realized that I didn't have a key piece of information for understanding the survey results. I'd looked at this survey several times, but I figured I wasn't looking closely enough. Finally, I realized what the problem was and called my editor. She was kind and passed along a document that decoded it for me. Now writing it should be a breeze.

The key things to remember for my serenity are these:

Humility goes a long way.
Asking for help as a perfectionist and business owner is never easy for me. I have to swallow my pride. But enlisting my editor's help is actually a sign of professionalism and every client from whom I've requested it has appreciated it.

Cutting myself slack is always the right answer.
The thing that stops me cold every time is self-judgment. Should I know how to do this already? It turns out in all three of those situations, there were things happening that I couldn't have known. The more I expect myself to have the biggest brain on the block (not to mention ESP) the further my serenity dwindles.

I have to acknowledge my progress.
If serenity is a muscle, I have to recognize when I've flexed it. Asking for help is one of those times. Merely stopping for a second to tell myself that I've done something new and difficul--and it was the right thing to do--reminds me that I can ask for help in the future.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Serenity Muscle

As self-employed people, we know that being successful in our chosen fields requires a lot of discipline: I had to learn how to make time for important things like seeking new work and invoicing clients, along with getting work done before deadline.

Creating serenity is no different.

I've really learned that lately with my yoga practice. After a hiatus, I started a morning practice again, mostly consisting of asanas designed to loosen my shoulders, arms and back and make my hours sitting at the computer more manageable. But committing to do that every day, even when I have a deadline looming and I spend my meditation time thinking about my to-do list? That's not so easy. But I do it anyway, because I know that it develops a muscle in me that connects me to the greater good and reminds me that my job is to focus on what I can do today--not bemoan the past or fret over the future. For me, those two behaviors represent a lot of the things that rob me of serenity.

And yoga is one of the ways that I let go of them. It also teaches me to do one thing at a time. When I'm stressed, my mind is like an octopus, grabbing for 10 things at once (and usually dropping at least half of them). Yoga reminds me to do what I'm doing now and mark my progress with my breath instead of the ticking of the clock). When I start work, I simply start on my to-do list, with first things first.

So, despite any inclinations to the contrary, I do yoga every day. Whatever it is that you find brings you serenity--whether it be a nap in the afternoon, a phone call to a loved one or a trip to the gym--just surrender to it. Know that by doing it, you're taking care of your business as much as if you were networking with a potential new client. I only do yoga for 15-30 minutes every day. But when I finish and sit down at my desk to start my day, I feel more centered and more joyous, and that can't do anything but help my work.

The Serenity Muscle

As self-employed people, we know that being successful in this field requires a lot of discipline: I had to learn how to manage my time, make time for important things like seeking new work and invoicing clients, along with getting work done before deadline.

Creating serenity is no difference.

I've really learned that lately with my yoga practice. After a hiatus, I started a morning practice again, mostly consisting of asanas designed to loosen my shoulders, arms and back and make my hours sitting at the computer more manageable. But committing to do that every day, even when I have a deadline looming and I spend my meditation time thinking about my to-do list? That's not so easy. But I do it anyway, because I know that it develops a muscle in me that connects me to the greater good and reminds me that my job is to focus on what I can do today--not bemoan the past or fret over the future. For me, those two behaviors represent a lot of the things that rob me of serenity.

So, do it every day. Whatever it is that you find brings you serenity--whether it be a nap in the afternoon, a phone call to a loved one or a trip to the gym--just surrender to it. Know that by doing it, you're taking care of your business as much as if you were networking with a potential new client. I only do yoga for 15-20 minutes every day. But when I finish and sit down at my desk to start my day, I feel more centered and more joyous, and that can't do anything but help my work.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Finding Self-Employed Serenity in a Workaholic World

My name is Heather and I'm a recovering workaholic.

As far as I know, there are no 12-step groups for people who are simply chronically stressed. But if there were, I would have been a great candidate for one three years ago. As a newspaper reporter, I lived deadline to deadline and was so consumed by the thrill of the hunt for just the right source or just the right turn of phrase that I forgot about things like food, sleep and exercise. You know, the usual casualties. It's what I learned early on. My journalism school was littered with professors with monumental minds and fabulous success, but without anything beyond work to give them a sense of wellbeing.

In the last few years, all that changed. When I started freelancing in 2005, I realized I needed to make some changes. I needed to put myself first, as hokey as that sounds. What I really mean is that I had to figure myself into the equation at all. I couldn't keep living as if I didn't have personal, spiritual or physical needs. I was, in two words, burnt out.

As a self-employed person, finding this balance is deceptively difficult. It's so easy to carry over the habits that made me a successful (if harried) news reporter in my new line of work. And all evidence in the culture would suggest that continuing on that path would make me equally successful.

But it's my deep belief that working that way doesn't serve anyone. It certainly doesn't serve me to sleep fitfuly, wake in a panic over work poorly done (or at least not done to my high standards) and approach my to-do list defeated, already feeling behind at 8 a.m. But, perhaps most relevant as a self-employed person, it doesn't serve my clients. When I set limits on my work, when I treat myself well, I return to my desk refreshed and energized, excited about my next assignment and able to put my full focus on it without keeping a running tab in my head of all the things I'm not doing by doing this assignment.

We all know this, though, right? We've been told a million times in magazines and by self-help gurus to take so-called me time. I don't know about you, but for me, that conjures images of Calgon commercials and scented candles. I'm allergic to scented candles. The point is that knowing doesn't make it any easier to actually create serenity in our lives. So how do we do it? How do we achieve serenity when we're entirely responsible for our financial and professional wellbeing?

That's what I aim to find out with this blog, but talking to well-balanced road warriors and entrepreneurs who don't sacrifice their sanity for their bottom line. I'll also try techniques for centeredness and consider the myriad tools commercially promoted to improve our lives. I hope you'll come along for the ride and offer your own ways of staying sane in an insane world.