Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cultivating Strengths, Nurturing Skills

If you really want to freak yourself out about your ability to create a self-employed life for yourself, read a lot of advice from experts about the skills required. For instance, according to Texas A & M University's Dr. Pam Brown, it takes:

- Entrepreneurship: "You've got to have the drive, that risk-taking attitude."

- Managerial skills: "What do you know about planning, marketing, financing?"

- Technical skills: "This is usually what people are passionate about," such as that love of cooking.

- Support: "How does it fit in with how your family operates, your family management style? Will your family accept" the new business?

You also have to consider, she says:

- You will not have benefits, such as medical insurance, paid vacations or retirement plans, unless you establish them yourself. "Nobody else is going to do it but you," Brown said.

- Networking with others is vital. "Establish a network you want to be in," she said, with professionals and others whose expertise you value.

- Motivation is also of vital importance. "You need internal motivation to keep you going or it's not going to work," Brown said.

- And, she added, "You have to plan ahead."

Skills, drive, motivation – all are required for a successful home-based business.

Now, it's not that any of this is false. It's all true. All that stuff--invoicing, insurance, passion, long hours, etc.--is absolutely a part of self-employment.

But let's face it. Almost none of us were born with this. The good news is you don't have to be. What you do have to do is tackle each of these skills one at a time.

It starts, like so much else about the self-employment learning curve, with awareness. Ask yourself first and foremost: What are your skills?

This question is deceptively simple. See, you may know the nuts and bolts of the creative side of the business, but I bet a bunch of those skills can be applied to the admin, marketing and entrepreneurship side of the job as well.

For instance, if you're a writer, you probably have some kind of organizational system. It may be strewn across your desk at this very moment, but it's there. How can you apply it to keeping track of when checks are due?

Or, if you're a creative person, how can you let your imagination rip when it comes to marketing? It can be a creative exercise; it doesn't have to be an exercise in selling people things they don't want.

So for today, make a list of all those things you do well in your job and look at how they apply to the less fun parts of self-employment. What comes up for you?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Serenity Tip: Patience

First, an expansion on yesterday's post on income goals:

Erik Sherman has a great post on when not to focus on monthly goals. His basic advice for finding serenity with your income is to look at the long haul:

Ultimately, the important thing is what you average over a quarter and, then, the year, and not every single month taken absolutely on its own. One reason is that it's difficult to turn around a significant amount that drops out of a month, as by the time you make the sale and start work, generally you will find your deadline into at least the next month. And if the amount is small, it's probably not worth diverting your attention from where your business is going overall.

What I love about Erik's suggestion here is that you need to have a balance between short-term cash flow and long-term goals.

This is where vision comes in. As you're growing your business, I've found it helpful to be mindful of both--but to focus on the latter. My mantra starting in about February of last year was "Focus on November."

What that meant was--sure, I could worry about my income this month. But if I wanted to really change my income picture in the long run, I needed to focus on increasing my income significantly in the next nine months. That meant changing my whole approach to work. I needed to privilege time working on marketing over some of my quick-paying but low-income assignments, and I needed to just hold tight and stomach the slow months.

And guess what happened? In November, my income doubled.

It was a gift. And I continue to be grateful for it. I show that gratitude by being a good steward of my cashflow by continuing that focus.

So if you're stressed about your income, and not meeting your income goals, try to practice patience. Income changes can come with glacial speed--and it may seem that way especially because your electric bill is due, like, today. But they will come, if you continue to do the work.

How do you practice patience? My best attempts include calling my fellow self-employed friends, being honest, meditating and exercising. You know, do the work and then practice the 1 percent rule.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Finding Serenity with Income Goals

If you have a business plan, then chances are you have income goals. And if you're like a lot of self-employed people, your income goals are probably a whole lot higher than your income history. Either you're new to self-employment and growing your business or you're experiencing a slowing of income increases that a 2004 study documented in the journal Science.

When considering my income goals for this year, some self employed friends gave me the following advice:

"If you're the type of person who can handle it when you don't meet your goals, then shoot for the moon. If, on the other hand, you feel like a failure and spend a lot of energy beating yourself up when you don't reach a goal, then you should set more modest goals.

Now, I've always fallen into the latter category. I'm very goal oriented, very Type A--but the unintended consequence of being so oriented towards outcomes is that inevitably you don't reach your goals at some point and not reaching those goals can send you into a spin of self-loathing and self-pity. Ans serenity? Right out the window.

So you're coming to the end of the first month of the year and it's a good time to reflect back on those goals you created at the end of 2007. How are you doing?

To assess, consider the following questions:

Are you close to your goal for the month?
What's the margin of difference between your goal and the reality for the month?
How does that goal feel in your body as you are putting it into action? What I mean is, when you think about that goal and how your income is actually flowing in comparison, do you feel panicky?
Do you feel proud?
Do you feel hopeless?
Do you feel like a failure?
Do you feel secure?

You get the point. A business plan isn't some dusty thing you put on a shelf. It's a living thing that--and here's the important part--you can adjust to match your needs. The important thing about a business plan is that it motivates and supports your business and your serenity as a self-employed person. If you're in the panicky category, you may be tempted to tone down those goals. That's allowed after all. But before you do that, consider this:

Wait a few months.

I know, it can feel excruciating. But you need to see where the gap between your earnings and your goals is the result of an unrealistic goal or if it's the result of some oversight in your marketing efforts.

So before you scale back, see where you can increase your income next month to balance your earning from this month. It's less important what you make this month than what you make on average over the next six months.

So don't be precipitous with your goal fiddling. But do be aware. Just do one small thing to increase your company's profile today. If after a few months, you're continuing to feel terrible, consider changing your goal.

Until then, consider it a practice of setting your intention with the universe.

If, at the end of those few months--let's say, at the end of the first quarter--you find you're not okay with falling short of your goals, then it's possible that you need to revise it--and then revise your expectations for spending, too.

And it's possible that you need to look at your mix of clients and marketing to see what's most effective for you.

The point is not the goal. The point is whether it motivates you in a positive way.

Serenity in business, I feel, comes from sustainability more than anything else.

So did I reach my goal for this month? Nope.

But I'm oddly fine with it. I don't know if it's the meditation, the support or the planning, but I can see my income stream projected for the next two months and it's outstripping this month several times over. Part of that, I'm finding, is seasonal. Last year, January was a tough month, too. The difference this year is that I'm better targeting my marketing and doing more work I love with better reward (both intellectually and financially) than I was last year.

Having a plan, more than anything, makes it so I find it easier to bounce back after a stressful or short month. Let's face it--cash flow will always be an issue for us self-employed people. That's out of our control.

What we can focus on, then, is how we plan for and react to our circumstances.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Serenity Tip: Resiliency

A word about illness and my last post: I was, of course, being sarcastic when I said that illness itself is the enemy of serenity. It can feel that way: You've got work to do and you can't move and that can be a recipe for obsessive worrying and self-condemnation (why didn't I plan for this? Why didn't I wash my hands more, the way they tell you to?).

But the reality is that illness is part of life and part of that 99 percent we can't control.

But what we can foster is resiliency--that is, the ability to bounce back quickly after a challenge or illness leaves us down for the count.

If you want to foster resiliency, the key is to focus on the future instead of the past. Sure, I could spend today gnashing my teeth over the fact that I lost a few days of work last week, or I can think about how to proceed with this week.

I once read something (and I'm sorry I can't now recall the source) that said that the difference between successful people and people who can never quite get there is that the successful people treat obstacles as a chance to change their behavior in the future (for instance, "Now that I've been sick I'll know how to approach clients about deadlines and how to manage my time better. I'll know to let myself rest earlier and not to take certain medicines that made me sicker this time."). People who struggle with success spend all their time looking at the past (for instance, "WHY did I do that? Why? I must know before I can move on." Or, "See? The fact that I 'failed' this time is proof that I'm a failure.").

But don't fear. You can have a little of both and still be successful. The Life and Work Connection at the University of Arizona reminds us of something very important:

Resiliency occurs on a continuum (it's not an either/or proposition)

In other words, feel free to wallow and beat your self up for a few minutes. Then think about how you can use this experience to make you successful the next time you experience it.

And have no doubt: You will experience whatever it was again. As the Buddha says, you have to remember that bad things will happen. And you have to remember that the only thing you possess are your actions around it.

So what actions should you take to develop the resiliency muscle? According to the University of Arizona, these are the keys:

1. Self-soothing: This is essentially anything that interrupts your stress response. A lot of the techniques are in the letting go toolkit. Meditation, yoga, support and prayer are all great ways to soothe your rattled mind. But it can also include cardio exercise and affirmations that contradict the anxiety building in your body.

2. Self-confronting: Essentially, this is challenging those self-doubts and negative thoughts that belong to you and pop up over and over again. For me, those are usually fatalistic beliefs about my ability to sustain self-employment and the belief that I will starve no matter what I do. Your mileage may vary, but please don't doubt that you have these grubby monkey-mind thoughts. Your job is to soothe yourself enough to contradict those old beliefs that are steealing your serenity.

The key here is to do both together:

Focusing on building your resiliency does NOT mean that whatever is going on around you is okay or that you should accept it, because maybe your growth issue involves saying no or setting a boundary where you've been afraid to in the past.

Self-soothing without the self-confronting leads to avoidance. Typical examples of avoidant behavior include withdrawing, being demanding, emotionally-driven eating, substance abuse, etc.

Conversely, self-confronting without self-soothing can lead to you beating yourself up (not good). Everybody walks a different road. For you, growing may involve backing off and letting go of control of a situation. For someone else, it may mean that they need to take more charge of the situation. Don't judge yourself by comparing yourself to others.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Serenity Enemy: Illness

Look up "illness" and "self-employed" on Google, and most of what you'll find is the conundrum of how to afford health insurance in the U.S. if you aren't part of a large company. What it doesn't tell you is how to deal with your work when you come down with a bad cold, or when you get pheumonia or bronchitis or any of the other cold-weather illnesses that abound right now.

Unluckily for me, I seem to be a guinea pig. Last week I picked up some horrible virus that left me unable to sleep, stay awake or form a coherent sentence. Writing the posts on this blog took hours. And finishing my work? Last week, it took some Herculean will to get it all done.

I was proud of myself that I had, and then I went to the doctor.

"Don't talk," said my physician. "And don't work. Do you need a note?"

"No thanks," I croaked. "I'm self-employed."

But see, that's the crux. Sometimes I like to say, "I'm self-employed, and my boss is a slave driver."

But what to do when the reality of your health butts up against the reality of your work life. If you're even moderately successful in your work, you come up with a schedule that keeps you steadily busy. Illness is never factored into that. And unlike staff employees, you can't get sick and call in, assuming someone else will pick up the slack.

And so the nattering brain starts:

You're weak.
If you don't finish that assignment, that client will never hire you again.
But what if you finish it, and it's terrible because you can't focus?
Why did I ever leave my cushy full-time gig?

Aside from whatever naturally comes up for you when you get sick (self-pity, depression, etc., seem pretty common among my self- and outside-employed friends alike when illness strikes), you have to cope with what to do about maintaining the momentum of your business.

Here's where you really have to put your 1 percent into action. In other words, ask yourself:

* What can you control here?
* What actions are your responsibility?
* What are your limits?

This last question is the most important one. For me when I'm sick, I go into deep denial about my limits. Heck, someone with a realistic sense of limits might not become self-employed in the first place. If I had thought about the intense learning curve involved in self-employment when I began, I might not have pursured it. I simply thought, "I like to learn. And I can do it. Let's go!"

So one of the new mantras I have for myself right now, as I convalesce, is "I accept that I have limits."

So I finished the work I could get done, was honest with my clients about the work I hadn't finished, told them how long I'd be out of comission and asked for direction. I've always found that clients want to collaborate. So I swallow my pride, and I invite them in. In some cases, my rigid determination to meet a certain deadline softened when the client told me the deadline wasn't so firm after all. In other cases, I was invited to complete the work when I was well.

And, most important, the world did not collapse on me. I continue to have relationships with my clients. And those emails from clients that I didn't respond to immediately because I was too tired and ill and fuzzy-headed to do so? I got to them. And the clients weren't enraged at the delay.

Now I'm going to sleep. You'll probably see me again next week, after I'm better.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Serenity Tip: Track Your Time

As a self-employed person, you probably feel like you spend every spare minute of your time thinking about work if not actually doing work. There's that invoice to send, that marketing effort you are waiting for a response on, the work in progress and the work recently submitted. It's a lot to deal with and it can feel exhausting.

Recently I was telling some self-employed friends how much I felt I was working--all the time. And they suggested I try tracking my time. I hesitated.

After all, do I need to add something else to my to-do list?

Well, it turned out to be a valuable exercise and one that didn't take more than a few seconds of my time.

First, a word about how to do it: There are lots of programs to help you track your time, including, TaskTime, Tick for Mac and Clocking It, TimeTrax, among others, for PC.

But I'm old school. There's a reason I worked at newspapers for years and that I still plan my day with an old-fashioned paper planner. I like to be able to hold it in my hands. So I bought a tiny notebook at Walgreens and every day, I just write the time spent in this way:

1.5 hrs. spirituality
.5 food
3 non-income work
1.5 income work
.25 personal
.5 income
.75 non-income work

Those are just examples, of course. You'll notice a few things right up front:

I'm not specific about time breakdowns--like "9-9:45: marketing; 9:45-10:30 a.m.: Client X."

The reason for this is that I didn't want to make it so onerous that I didn't do it. Remember, I'm just starting. I may eventually get to that level of specificity and I see the value in it. But for right now, I just wanted to start with something manageable.

I divide work into "income" and "nonincome" work.

Recently a friend asked me if I felt I was devaluing my marketing, admin, IT and other projects by calling it "nonincome." The answer is that I don't. For me it's a matter of getting clarity about what's work that's got a formal assignment and contract (income) and what's work that supports the income-generating work, such as admin, IT and most importantly marketing (nonincome).

I wanted to see how much time I was spending on income and non-income work for two reasons:

1. I want to know my hourly rate.
Knowing my hourly rate requires me to know exactly how much time I spend earning income.

2. I wanted to see how much time I'm working overall.
One of my goals for this year is to increase marketing efforts to select clients and to increase my proportion of marketing-to-income work. My theory is that it will increase my income overall without substantially increasing my income work time. Why? Because it will create steady work over time instead of the boom and bust cycle that's so common for self-employed people.

You'll also notice that I put space for "spirituality," "food" and "personal." I also include categories like "health" (for gym and doctors' visits). I do this because I want to see how much time I'm spending away from work. This isn't to berate myself for not working but to see on paper where my boundaries are. I find that taking breaks for meals, taking time for the gym and for meditation and other spiritual work improves my concentration and work. But looking at it, I definitely see how my priorities show up in my work. It's more balanced than it once was.

Now my work is to figure out how to create more high-quality work time while keeping my serenity.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Serenity Tool: Back It Up

Serenity Tool is a new feature in which I highlight office equipment and tools that can increase your serenity by clearing your mental clutter, freeing you of anxiety and preparing your for those times when things don't go the way you'd like. If you have a suggestion for a tool or a question of what can increase your productivity while keeping you serene, email me at heather at

If you're like me, you can feel like you are your thoughts and words. It's a professional hazard. But there's a way to put that feeling where it belongs. Instead of feeling attached to every word you send out and like you are your job, create a container for your work--literally.

Get yourself some backup for your computer and all its precious files. Aside from sparing you the gruesome fate of losing everything to the Blue Screen of Death, it's also an act of being a good steward of your work.

Here are the choices you have to make:

1. How much memory do you need? The easy way to figure this out is to look at how much memory your computer holds total and get at least half of that. For every professional, the amount of memory you'll need will depend on your profession. If you're only looking to back up Word files, which are small, you won't need as much as if you'd also like to back up photos, music or graphics.

2. External hard drive or online backup? Basically, you can either back up with a super souped-up version of those little keychain flash drives or you can subscribe to a monthly service that allows you to back everything up over the Internet. Each have advantages and I've used both. The joy of online is that you can access your work from anywhere, on any computer, quickly and easily by logging onto your account like you'd log on to email. The advantage of external backup is that you generally get more bang for your buck.

3. PC or Mac? In my experience, backup systems are generally one or the other--though I chose my Maxtor because it can be written for either. Be sure to check your backup compatibility before you buy.

Now that you know the basics, may I recommend:

The Maxtor One Touch Plus External Hard Drive

I purchased one of these last year and love it. First of all, it's massive: it came with a full 750 GB of memory for $250. That could hold my whole computer hard drive more than seven times over.

Second, I found it easy to install and simple to use. That's a big deal for me, because despite growing up in a family computer professors, I'm not terrible tech-savvy. New hardware, computer breakdowns--they all make my fingers tingle with adrenaline and wash me with waves of nausea.

But with One Touch, you simply plug the hard drive into an outlet, attach the USB or FireWire cable to your computer, and after software installation (which was automatic with my Mac but comes with an easy-to-use CD for PC) and voila! The external drive shows up on your computer. Simply double click on the Maxtor Manager icon and set the backup schedule. Then you're done. You don't have to think about it again until you need to retrieve something.

Recently, I made a change to an article and wanted to see what it had been previously. So I double clicked on the OneTouch 4 icon and found the document. Easy. And what a relieve.

If you're more interested in online backup, I've used two that I can comment on:


If you have a PC, this is the one for you. Your mileage may vary and there are other options out there (Carbonite, eVault and others come up with just a quick Google search.) But I used iBackup at the suggestion of some colleagues and loved it. It starts at $9.95 a month for 10 GB of memory and goes up from there. I found that 10 was plenty for me when I started and then I needed more.

I found their customer service friendly and simple to use. If I hadn't switched from PC to Apple, I would have kept them for years to come.


When I first got my Apple, this is the service I went with. At the time, there were few options for an Apple user who wanted to back their work up online. Now .Mac, Apple's service program that includes online backup, offers 10 GB of memory for $100 a year and another 10 GB for $100 more, I believe. But at the time, I think they only offered 2 GB. So I went with BackJack. The best thing about the service is that it's quick and easy and when you call for support, you get a very friendly Canadian woman who just couldn't be more happy to help you. However, at the time I subscribed, the cost was high: $53.50 a month for the 10 GB I needed. Recently, they upgraded the service to work with Apple's new operating system, Leopard and reduced their prices. Now you get 5 GB for $15 a month, and each additional Gb for $2 more. Still, that can run pretty high.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Serenity Insurance: Being a Good Steward

Self-employment is a tightrope between abundance and scarcity, and sometimes it can feel like that image in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion of the girl walking the tightrope over a pit of alligators. It's easy to feel that you're just barely keeping your head above water. Sometimes it's true.

As you work on growing your business, consider a bit of serenity insurance: Think about the things you value most in your business. That's your health, your equipment, your means of communication, etc.

Now imagine if any one of those became unavailable. Feel that burning in your chest and boulder in your stomach? That's the feeling of coming lack of serenity.

If you don't plan for those unexpected but predictible changes--the computer will break, you will get sick--you're actually planning to lose your serenity.

Now imagine how good it will feel to know with certainty that you could support the things that support you.

I say this because there are things that I love that I don't necessarily take good care of. In my younger years, I loved and relied upon my car but didn't do anything to keep it running short of regular oil changes. When I started my business, I needed my computer but had no means to care for it. When it broke, I was in a panic, until I could buy a new one.

What I'm talking about is becoming a good steward of those things you love--including yourself. So serenity insurance can mean the obvious--health insurance (which is a post for another day) and homeowners or renters insurance--but it can also mean having a fund for other unpredictable but inevitable changes.

One of my intentions for this year is to set aside a tiny bit of money each month for a repair fund. After all, if my actions are all I possess then I want to support my values by taking an action that's in alignment with them.

When I was finally able to buy another computer, the gratitude that I felt was immense. I want to remember and honor that feeling by caring for it the way I'd care for anything I valued. And I include this intention in my business plan.

Of course, the cold, hard business side of this practice is discovering just how much it really costs to run a business. If you're a sole proprietor, it's tempting to think you only need to make enough to pay your bills every month. But think larger, because the truth is that the goal of business planning to keep you self-employed in the long run, not just this month. Being a good steward allows you to do that.

What are your list of unpredictable but inevitable expenses you need to plan for?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Facts of Gratitude

I know I talk about gratitude and forgiveness often on this blog, but there's a reason for it. I start my day with a gratitude list that often includes my clients and the flexibility, freedom and privilege my self-employment grants me.

But it turns out that this isn't just hippie-woo-woo stuff. The Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business offers this take on why you should strive for gratitude instead of just "not being angry."

Effectively applied in the workplace, for instance, gratitude may positively impact such factors as job satisfaction, loyalty, and citizenship behavior, while reducing employee turnover and increasing organizational profitability and productivity.

Charles Kerns found that gratitude benefits both the person expressing it and the person receiving the expression of gratitude. It made them feel more bonded together and they were more determined to work hard in their jobs. In short, they became more invested.

This is an important lesson for the self-employed. This is a hard job. It's easy to get overwhelmed by its stresses and to get cranky--both with those who might deserve it and those who simply got in your way. What this study shows is that gratitude doesn't just increase serenity--it can help you grow your business.

And there's more. Kerns points to studies that found people who are more grateful also have healthier immune systems and better cardiovascular health. "In one recent study, individuals who focused on being grateful rather than on not being angry were found to positively impact a variety of important physiological functions such as improved heart, pulse, and respiration rates."

Another study suggested that people who are reliably grateful live longer.

The point is that gratitude infuses your life and your business. I suggest starting slowly. Become aware of that for which you're truly grateful--not just the clients who pay you the most (and may create the most stress). Cultivate that feeling that you are being blessed by the gifts in your life. And then nurture them by sharing them with peers and those to whom you're grateful.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Answer: The Letting Go Tool Kit

Recently someone asked a follow up question to my post on The 1 Percent Rule. Namely:

Aside from focusing on the 1%, how do you "hand over all that stuff to the
deity of my choice"?

First, I don't want to discount focusing on that 1 percent. Just like curbing cravings, don't underestimate the power of distraction. Just focusing your attention away from the maddening drone of Things You Can't Control can do wonders.

But once you've done that, I'll add that letting go of the uncontrollable 99 percent of my work and life isn't easy. It's one of the hardest things I do every day--harder even than marketing.

It takes vigilance and awareness, as well as clarity about what's my 1 percent and what's the rest. To wit, the things that help me most:


It's often said and I experience regularly: Don't like what you're feeling? Don't worry. It'll pass. That aphorism becomes concrete in meditation or other mindful traditions, like prayer.

Anytime I notice my mind drifting in meditation, I note it and bring myself back, gently, to my breath or to the image on which I'm meditating.

That practice is priceless when I'm simply walking around my office and feeling that tight anxiety of things I can't control. Just like in meditation, I notice when my mind is back to asking Why hasn't that prospective client called/emailed?, for example. Then I notice it, practice detachment and remind myself, "None of my business. Let it go."

I've heard it said that "Why?" is not a spiritual question--but it's still a good one to ask if you're self-employed. If my question is, "Why hasn't that check arrived? It was supposed to be here last week," you better believe that my job is to call the client and inquire. But if the question is "Why isn't she calling me?" I have two choices: I can either call her myself, or I can let it go. I try to do both. I call, and then, no matter the outcome, I accept that I can't make things happen the way I always want and I let it go.


Remember all those people I have in my life to support my business? This is one of the things I use them for. If meditation and mindfulness doesn't work, I call them so I can have someone outside my brain tell me to let it go. Sometimes just by talking to them, and by getting the reassurance that I'm doing everything I can (or by getting a new action step to take), I feel better. I'm back to my 1 percent.


At some point, I have to say, those tenacious little worries just aren't going away on their own. That's when I call in the big guns. If I'm suffering something having to do with work--or my personal life--I try to interrupt my anxiety and my obsession by praying to whatever I believe in to have it removed. I will do this as many times as necessary throughout the day if it's really bothering me.


It almost always helps if I can get myself out of my mind and into my body. When I'm worrying about something, or ruminating on that 99 percent, I'm almost always shrugging in my shoulders, holding my breath or breathing shallowly or contracting my chest wall. It helps me to go into a pose like legs-up-the-wall pose, fish pose supported by a bolster or blanket under my back, bridge pose or reclining bound angle pose.

Your mileage may vary. For you, it could just be a good run on a treadmill or some quality time with your elliptical machine. Clear your head. And then come back and see if it's any easier to focus on your 1 percent.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Word about Forgiveness

When things aren't going your way--when a prospective client strings you along only to turn down your marketing efforts, when the computer breaks, when your kids are driving you nuts, when your deadline is approaching and a subcontractor flakes--that's the time when it can feel hardest to practice nongrasping or detachment.

But will you be surprised to hear that that's the time it can benefit you the most?

We cling so hard sometimes to our resentments--hoping that by sheer force of energy those by whom we feel wronged will get a flat tire or develop a dental emergency. But usually all that does is cause our own suffering and keep us from focusing on our 1 percent.

So instead, try something counter intuitive. Forgive them.

I know they're wrong and they should burn in the fiery pits. Forgive them anyway. I know they deserve a voodoo doll full of long, dull and painful pins.

Still forgive them.

Need help? Consider practicing metta, or loving-kindness.

Here's how it works: In the simplest sense, it's wishing good things for those you'd most like to see file bankruptcy (or perhaps just get a really nasty hangnail).

In the traditional Buddhist sense, it's a specific type of meditation in which you pray for specific things for the person you resent. The way I was taught it was to pray the following:

May you be free of pain.
May your body know peace.
May you be filled with loving-kindness.

I think there's a line or two in there I've forgotten since my first yoga teacher introduced me to it years ago.

So here's a more complete loving-kindness prayer, courtesy of YouTube:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Serenity Tip: Positive Performance

If you're the least bit Type A, you probably are a whiz with to-do lists. You probably already know the joy of getting your tasks down in a list instead of floating around in your head. And if you're Type A you may suffer from something I wrote about recently: That is, the impostor syndrome.

That is, you may not be able to see the progress you're making or the good work you've done today.

Use your listing skills to combat that monkey mind.

Make an accomplishment list

When my inner critic is having a ball tying me up in knots I make a very hokey but useful list. At the end of the day--or any time I forget what I've accomplished--I make a list titled "What I did well today."

Try it, answering these questions:

* What difficult task did you finally start, finish or make progress on?
* What stress were you able to let go of today?
* How did you take care of yourself? Did you take breaks, eat healthily or exercise?
* When were you brave?
* When were you helpful?
* When did you share your joy with someone else?
* When did you act professionally?
* What steps--tiny or large--did you take toward marketing yourself today?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Finding the Right Support

I was speaking to another self-employed person yesterday and she voiced a common problem:

I don't have any colleagues. I've tried web bulletin boards, but there's mostly a lot of gossiping there.

If you're a sole proprietor, you may be feeling this way, too. As self-employed people interested in growing our knowledge and expertise in our field, we need to have other professional people against whom to bounce our thoughts. In an office, you can swivel over to the person in the next cube and ask their opinion. We don't have that.

But we can.

I have created a web of support for myself that looks like this:

--Every day, I call a friend (not self-employed and not in my field, but similarly interested in increasing her income) and report what's challenging me and what I've accomplished.

--Twice a week, I meet with two people in my field. On one day, we get together at a coffee shop and just work. On the second day, we debrief.

--Once a month, I meet with two friends who are self-employed (though not in my field) to talk about my financial goals and to craft the next steps to help me achieve them.

--Once a month, I'm starting to attend a writers' group set up by someone else. We get together and talk about our blocks to marketing.

What this means is that every day, at any given time, I know I have someone to call or meet with to help me tackle the hardest things on my to-do list, or with whom to debrief after I've done them. It helps me keep my center when I start ruminating over things I can't control. And the constant opportunity to be honest about what's getting to me--there's a huge learning curve in becoming self-employed, after all--helps clear out the clutter so it doesn't affect my sleep.

It also relieves me of the loneliness I can feel when I'm working at home. After all, I'm a social person. I also like a lot of support.

Finding people you trust can be harder. Here are my tips:

* Talk to everyone.

Just like networking, finding a good support system requires you to meet and talk to a lot of people about what you need. Tell people what you do for a living, go to networking events in your field and say that you're looking for a work buddy.

* Check your gut.

Like my friend said, some people are just not right for the job of support. So ask yourself:
--Is this person negative?
--Do they complain?
--Are they judgmental or gossipy about others?
--Are they honest about how their work affects them or do they hide the truth behind a list of accomplishments?

Once you answer these questions, you'll know if you want to spend two days a week with this person. You've gotta feel safe in order to really feel supported.

* Wait a day.

Don't commit to anything when you first meet someone. Whether you are immediately attracted to their charm or wit or whatever, give yourself a day to think about it. Let it settle in.

If after all that, the person seems right to you, arrange times and figure out what you want to get out of the group.

And finally:

* Set an intention for the group.

My intention is always to keep myself sane. It's not to become best friends (though of course I appreciate them and am grateful to them in a very deep way) with my colleagues. It's not to make the most money I possibly can. It's to learn how to keep my center as things change and to make my freelancing sustainable by increasing my income.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What's Your 1 Percent?

The Buddha may remember that our actions are our only possessions, what should we do when we forget?

Here's another rule that works for me: The 1% Rule.

Basically, the 1% rule holds that only 1% of anything that happens in your life is within your control. Everything else you have to just accept. But that 1 percnet... That's a powerful single digit.

When I'm frustrated with the way things are going--either because they're getting better but aren't where I want them to be yet, or because I'm judging something in my life as inadequate, I ask myself:

Okay, what's my 1 percent here?

If I can't control 99 percent of what's happening in my life, I have to hand over all that stuff to the deity of my choice. But that 1 percent... It's a relief. It's so nice to remember that it's not actually my job to mind-meld someone into picking up the phone and calling me, or to force my brain into being ready to spill a story onto my computer screen.

Instead, I focus all that energy I was spending being frustrated on controlling that 1 percent. I do more marketing. I work on projects where I'm not blocked. I organize my desk. I shred the junk mail.

It's so much more fulfilling than fighting with that other 99 percent--because, I'll tell you, that other 99 percent? It always wins when I fight it.

So what's your 1 percent right now?

Now, go do it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Serenity Tip: Put Yourself to Bed

One of the first symptoms of stress is sleep disturbance, and if you're self-employed, you're almost certainly stressed. There are clients to worry about, invoices to obsess about, marketing efforts to worry about and the future to order in your mind. It can tire a person out while robbing them of restorative sleep.

So how to cope with bedtime breakdowns?

Well, I won't be the first person to mention the idea of sleep hygiene--that is, the idea that maybe you shouldn't be drinking coffee right before bed or sleep in a room with a bright light right outside the room or try to sleep next to jack-hammering.

But I will share what's working for me. A few months ago, cognizant of my own tendancy to stay up till midnight and be unable to unwind from the day, I treated myself like a little kid and tucked myself in at a regular time every night. Here are the main changes I made:

No staring into monitors of any kind--TV or computer--after 10 PM

This was the hardest and most dramatic change. I love my 10 p.m. reality shows as much as anyone, and it's tempting to slink over to the desk and do a little work late at night when it's quiet. But I also know that both those things ramp me up. It takes about an hour for me to settle down after I turn off the TV or computer at night. So if I'm staring at it till 11 p.m.--or later, if I catch a bit of the Daily Show--it's almost impossible for me to fall asleep before midnight.

I will add that I'm naturally a night owl, but I actually do my best work first thing in the morning. So this routine works for me. Your mileage will almost certainly vary. I know there are many people who do their best work at night--after the kids are asleep, etc. But I know that I need at least 8 hours of sleep a night or I'm cranky. And since I don't drink caffeine, I don't have the option of giving myself a chemical boost. So, off with the TV and computer by 10 most nights.

I'm not perfect with this. Just last night, I was on the computer till 10:30. But by having that guideline I make it more likely that I'll get enough sleep.

Do a little yoga

I had been doing my yoga practice in the morning, but as the days got shorter, I found I needed more sleep and that I was having a harder time falling asleep. So I adjusted. Right now, I'm doing yoga poses for my shoulders, neck and back, as well as relaxing poses like child's pose. I light a few candles, and between that low light and the light of my bedside lamp, I go to bed with my body humming and relaxed.

Don't save up your worrying till the end of the day

Let's get back to the comment I made at the beginning of this post: Worry. Obsessive thoughts. Obsessive planning. Sometimes I hit the sack and lay there with a spool in my chest unwinding all the exciting and anxiety-producing events of the day. If I'm really on a role, that spool also includes events of the past week or upcoming events that hold a lot of charge for me.

So for my own sanity, I can't wait till the end of the day to think about and address those things. If our actions are our only possessions, then we need to address the things that worry us before they intrude on sleep hours. So I write and talk to fellow business owners throughout the day about my stresses and anxiety. I write them down before bed if they're still bothering me and end with this comment:

All these feelings will be here waiting for you when you get up. It's okay to let them go right now.

And if all else fails, I meditate just before bed. Then I can usually slip into sleep without much resistance from my overactive mind.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Serenity Tip: Create a New Mantra

On the heels of the most recent discussion on this blog about how to identify serenity when you've got it, I'd like to add a mantra:

I am not my work.

I know, it chafes. As self-employed people, we pour so much of our hearts and souls and intellects and emotions into the job that at some point it becomes tempting to merge with it. It isn't just a fulfilling, and sometimes erratic, part of our lives, it is our lives. It isn't just part of our identity. It becomes the whole thing.

If you're like me, there's even a bit of a swagger to it: Yeah, I run my own business. What do you do? Oh--sit behind a desk every day doing someone else's bidding? That must feel... safe.

Yikes. Just like there's a difference between pride in making self-employment in a field you love actually support you and arrogance, there's a difference between your job and you.

I had a hard time with this one at first: My job is basically my thoughts. I'm a sole proprietorship. In a very real sense, Iam my job, right?

Not really. Even the IRS recognizes a difference between you and work--you can't deduct everything, after all. And my job is my thoughts--it's creative. But I'm not just my thoughts, am I? This gets very philosophical very fast. But it's a good question to ask. What else am I? I'm the things I love, I'm how I treat the people I love, I'm how I treat the people I hate, I'm my feelings, I'm my spirituality. I just am.

But most important, when it comes to serenity, this is one of those techniques for practicing nongrasping. When I was a newspaper reporter, my job was my entire identity. I was a workaholic, as I've already said. So when I left, I went into crisis. I didn't have a life outside work. I didn't have anything that gave me a sense of wellbeing or self-esteem. It very quickly became clear how unmanageable my approach to my self-concept had become.

Nongrasping frees us from suffering. So when a client rejects a marketing effort, when the work is draining, when the checks aren't flowing, remembering that you're not your job can free you from feeling like this is something you have to fix. And remembering that you're not your job when everything is fabulous and everyone lovbes you and you're rolling in dough can free you from the delusion that it will always be this way. Neither is a reflection of you. It's just business. Both of those are part of the job. But they aren't a reflection of who you are as a person.

When you're off work, whenever you're obsessing about things you can't control and that are keeping you from enjoying family and friends, practice saying to yourself:

I am not my job.

Friday, January 4, 2008

What Serenity Is

Now that we know what serenity is not, let's talk about what it is.

At its heart, I think, serenity is about living in reality and accepting what comes to us--and then doing our part to care for ourselves, regardless of what's going on around us. Serenity comes from developing a strong center that can weather or quickly recover from big emotional blows or reversals of fortune.

I remember when this realization changed my thinking. I was on public transportation, heading to my last full-time job before starting my business. I hated that job--or rather, I loved what I was doing and many of my coworkers, but something about it wasn't right for me. I was in agony over it every day. So, on the way to work, I entertained myself with an issue of Yoga Journal. Here's what it said:

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth--a denial that leads to anxiety, fear and confusion.

What he's working up to is a discussion of the Buddha's Five Rembembrances. They go something like this:

I will grow old.

This body will know sickness.

There is no escape from death.

Everything and everyone change.

All I have are my actions.

The writer, Frank Jude Boccio, recommends repeating these remembrances--these reality checks--every day to interrupt the machinations of denial.

As I think about serenity in my business, I need to adapt these remembrances for the workplace. For instance, I will get sick and not be able to work some days. Pretending like I can work nonstop and never set aside money or time or compassion for myself for those days I'm struck with illness creates in me--what did he say?--"anxiety, fear and confusion."

Yeah, that.

Or, pretending that the kind I work I enjoy won't change or that I can keep the same clients forever does nothing but leave me waiting impotently for the other shoe to drop. It creates a kind of self-satisfied, hazy denial where I refuse to think about what I would do if my biggest client dropped me.

That's why the last remembrance is key (from Thich Nhat Hanh's The Plum Village Chanting Book):

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

So again, the antidote to stress, anxiety and fear is to focus on your behavior today. How much marketing are you doing? How much are you relying on one client to make ends meet? What would make you feel more secure, like you could weather any storms? Think about it and then take one small step today to achieve it.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What Serenity Isn't

Serenity, like "me time," is a much overused word. In the wrong hands (say, advertisers), it's a buzz word, devoid of meaning and used like a sledge hammer to bully you into buying the latest aromatherapy kits. So I think it's important, before we go too far down this path, to remember what serenity isn't:

* It isn't blissful happiness.
Serenity doesn't promise you a rose garden, it doesn't bring you flowers, or any other torch song cliche. Feeling good and feeling serene aren't the same thing, but it's nice when they intersect.

* It isn't getting everything you want.
Sure, you may feel great (see above) when you get everything you want. But remember when you were a child? If you're Christian and if you grew up in a middle-class family, you may recall the high you got from getting everything you wanted on Christmas morning. But after that high, what happened? First, you took a nap because your adrenaline crashed and zapped your energy. And then you wanted more. You'll always want more. Getting what you want doesn't create calm or centeredness. And yes, I'll add that cautionary cliche: Sometimes getting everything you want can rob you of serenity.

* It isn't having a day where everything goes smoothly.
If you're juggling kids and work, you can be forgiven for thinking that serenity is a day when the kid doesn't throw up on his new outfit on the way to see out-of-town relatives, dinner doesn't burn and at midnight you're not attached to your computer, answering a million emails. Still, that's not really serenity. That's reduced stress--which is great all on its own.

I once read something that went something like this:

Our lives became unmanageable when the car wouldn't start, our spouse wouldn't do what we said or the computer broke.

Get the sarcasm? The point is that that stuff happens. That's life. Serenity doesn't give you a get-out-of-life-free card. In fact, it's that misconception that makes serenity seem so unattainable. If that's your definition, then serenity can only be achieved by cloistered nuns or yogis on a hilltop.

And that brings me to the most important thing that serenity isn't:

* Serenity isn't an action item.
Serenity was never meant to be another item on your to-do list. It's a means to accomplishing the things on your list because it clears away the clutter of fear and anxiety.

You can do that by creating a serenity practice, by practicing breathing techniques and by getting clarity about your personal and business needs through your business plan. And you can learn to let go, among other things. In tomorrow's post, I'll write about another way to find serenity.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Serenity Tip: Just Do It

When I started meditating three years ago, I was having a very hard time getting myself to start. I wanted candles lit, a single rose in a vase near the candles, the perfect meditation chair and a clean, quiet place in which to meditate. And I wanted to do it for 30 minutes at a time.

Then a very wise friend of mine said to me: "Heather, sit down, shut up and close your eyes for two minutes!"

Thus began my daily practice. There are no candles in bed. The room where I meditate is usually a mess. I don't have flowers in my meditation room (which doubles as my office). But I do it. Sometimes, when I'm really in the groove, I get 25 minutes in. Sometimes, when I'm agitated or in a hurry, I do five minutes. Usually, like today, I get in 15 minutes.

So start the year this way: Whatever practice you keep promising yourself you'll do, just start it. Drop what you're doing right now and do it for two minutes: Maybe it's marketing you hate, but need to get into the practice of it. Maybe it's meditation or yoga. Just try it. For two minutes. Then stop. Don't overwhelm yourself. Save up the excitement of having started for tomorrow's two minutes.

Eventually it will grow, and become a practice. But right now, just do it.