Friday, February 29, 2008

Serenity Tip: Recovering from Overwhelm

It's Friday. Are you more relaxed, looking forward to the weekend? Or maybe you feel your throat closing ever so slightly as you stare down a long list of things to do, and recognize several as things you didn't get to yesterday, the day before or the day before that. And don't forget that deadline coming up today and early next week.

Welcome to overwhelm.

A friend of mine called me last night with the following symptoms:

* Obsessive worry about confrontations and projects he'll have to handle next month.
* Regret that he didn't get to some projects earlier this week and that they were building up.
* Sadness and shame around some stuff in his personal life.
* A general sense that it was impossible to catch up, that there was too much to do and it all needed to be done right now.

Sould familiar?

Yeah, me too.

I so know this feeling. I'm the queen of overwhelm, with a habit of being very dramatic about it. And since I also work hard at being productive and professional, I've also come up with some ways of coping with it. Here are my favorites:

* Focus on these 24 hours: That project due in a month? That confrontation you're dreading? If it's not happening today, shelve it. I don't know about you, but I often use worry as a replacement for planning, so I end up working myself into a tizzy because I think it's somehow protecting me from that thing I'm dreading doing next week or tomorrow. The truth is all it does is steal precious energy I need for today's looming deadlines and the hard work in front of me right now. Don't do it to yourself. Just focus on today.

* Trust the future: If you have a spiritual practice and believe in some kind of Higher Power, now's the time to focus on inviting that power into your life. I know it sounds hokey and/or frighteningly religious if you're not, but bear with me. The point is this: You don't need to worry about how you'll handle projects in the future. You can trust that the Higher Power of your choosing/tradition/understanding will help you make the right decisions when the time comes. It's not all in your hands and never was. Relaaaax.

* Get clear: Remember that worry-as-a-replacement-for-planning? Now that you've let go of the biggest weight of overwhelm, you can focus on just those things on your to-do list that are important today. These can be personal deadlines, client deadlines or anything else. Really take a look at your to-do list today and set some realistic priorities. You may find that you don't have all that much that absolutely positively has to be done today. Weed out the things you're doing out of pride instead of necessity and focus your considerable energy and skill towards those things that are helpful to your clients.

Do these tips work for you? What are the other things that overwhelm you in your business?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Serenity Enemy: Clutter

Recently a self-employed person came to me with this block to her serenity:

During the week, I'm too busy to clean my office, and just can't seen to be able to justify taking the time to organize it all. On the weekends, I don't feel like going in my office and doing work stuff. So, cleaning my office seems to fit in no where. It's a great space, really the best in my condo, and where I spend the majority of my time. But it's so disorganized and undecorated (aside from matching furniture I bought at IKEA when I moved in) that I don't enjoy being in here at all. I'm embarrassed when others see it, and I complain about it all the time.

This is such a common problem. Is this about serenity? I'm not sure. I do know that being unable to find things (especially bills) can lead to tremendous stress, discontent and worry. And if you don't like what you look at every day in your office, chances are you aren't enjoying your work as much as you could be. (And as I've said before, if you're happy and grateful, you are much more likely to pay it forward.)

So what to do?

First, I'll suggest something that I do once a month:

Sit in a comfortable position, before the stress of the workday is upon you (you can do this in bed as you're waking). Close your eyes and breathe deeply. As you settle in, ask yourself this question: "What do you want your office to look like?"

You can get more specific, and I often do:

* What would be most abundant and serene for you?
* What do you see when you look at your office in your mind's eye?
* What's one thing you can do to make your office more like this today?

This is, as my friends call it, a visions meditation. Create a vision for yourself, something that excites you and gets you enthusiastic about making the change in your office.

I do this once a month and I often have the same vision: Cherry wood desk with tempered glass top, lots of plants, free of clutter, overlooking a big window with a view of trees or a garden.

When I look around my office this very second, I don't have that view. But what I do see is a big window, a bookshelf with cherry wood and tempered glass shelves and a small bouquet of dazzlingly yellow freesia. It's a small thing, but it makes me happy. And I'm aware that it's a process.

Now, there are lots of ways you can bring this vision into being. The way I do it is to do one hard thing toward cleaning your office a day.

But professional organizer and former freelance writer Janine Adams uses an online motivational tool To help her clean off her desk at the end of every workday. Here's what she says:

"My big obstacle when I was freelancing and until recently as a professional organizer was as messy desk. I couldn't get myself to clear it at the end of the workday, even though I knew I was much more productive on the rare occasions that I had a clean desk when I arrived at work in the morning. But this year, it's changed. I cleaned my desk off thoroughly on January 5 and, with the help of to build the habit, I've cleared it off every single day, save one Saturday when I left my knitting on it. That habit alone has really, truly affected my work serenity."

There are still other ways you can do it. You can set a timer and do 5 minutes of cleaning every day. I even have friends who have "clutter buddies" who come over and sit with them as they clean their offices, because they can't seem to motivate without that kind of support.

The point is, of course, not to do this the One Right Way, but to make a start.

What do you do to bring serenity back to your office?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Serenity Tip: Share the happiness

I've written before about the power of expressing gratitude in your work life. It's not just about a once-a-year holiday card to key clients or sources. Nor is it simply a matter of saying thank you at the end of a particularly helpful telephone call. It's a matter of sharing the joy you experience in your job with others and spreading it around.

How does this help serenity? By focusing on joy instead of struggles, you amplify them and your experience of your work changes. Since self-employment by its nature is full of rough bumps in the road, amplifying your gratitude and happiness isn't just a nice thing to do; it's something that makes your work sustainable.

So here's the tip:

Keep thank-you cards on hand.

It's obvious, right? But the art of sending a thank-you card is a dying one. Emails are also great, but a hand-written card with a simple but genuine expression of thanks is a rare and memorable gift these days.

I was reminded of this yesterday.

I was on deadline Friday and scrambling to find that final source. I got ahold of a PR person on Thursday and begged for her help. She was a little cranky--"We get these last minute calls all the time. I don't know how you expect us to help you on such short notice!"--but then she really came through. She found two people for me to talk to by my deadline and I've lined up another one of her sources for a story I'm doing this week.

I was overjoyed, of course, and I always like thanking people for helping me out of a pickle. So I reached over and grabbed a thank-you card off my desk. I addressed it, filled it out and sent it. Then I forgot about it and moved on to the next thing.

Yesterday, I got a call from the woman. She was kind and clearly touched. I'm so glad. I try to never work last-minute like that and I wanted to express my gratitude for her help. It was received well and now we have a slightly closer relationship.

Keep the cards on hand for these situations and for when clients, other professionals and others connect you with new potential clients. Jotting off a quick note may mean little to you, but it will affect the person who receives it in a simple but important way.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Housekeeping: Comments are open

Recently I got an email from a writer who would love to comment on the blog but, understandably, doesn't want her frustrations aired in public with her name attached.

It occurred to me that some of you may feel the same.

So for the next month, I've removed the registration requirement from commenting. Feel free to comment anonymously, ask questions and seek advice. I'm always looking to answer your questions on what's blocking your serenity today.

If after that month I don't see a significant problem with spammy messages, I'll leave it open to anonymous posts.

Happy commenting!

Serenity Tip: Serenity during personal crises

This is always a hard one: A loved one is sick, is in the hospital, and your mind is definitely not on the work in front of you.

How do you stay centered then? Impossible, right?

Well, it's not easy, I'll say that. A few years ago when my father was in the hospital, I didn't deal with it very well. I threw myself into work and barely acknowledged the pain I and the rest of my family was feeling. I was incredibly prolific, and I think I expected that accomplishment to blot out my fear, sadness and worry--to give me the serenity that I didn't have already.

Of course it didn't. All it did was make me feel guilty for not being there with my family.

I do think it's possible, however, to find a middle ground, but we have to look hard for it. This is not a culture that encourages moderation, and so I looked at it as extremes: Either I spend all my time with my family and fall into a deep depression (that was my fear, but yours may vary) or I completely ignore all my feelings and become super concentrated on work through the use of various numbing agents. My favorite at the time were coffee, Diet Coke, massive quantities of chocolate bars and giant slices of pizza the size of my head.

Today, I deal with personal crises a little different. Here's what I try to remember:

Welcome to my bad day

There's no getting around it (except through the use of the aforementioned drugs of choice). You're gonna have a bad day. Maybe lots of them. Maybe you'll start your day crying and end it the same way. Maybe you'll be embarrassed and ashamed and worried that work is suffering because you don't feel okay.

But worrying about it is not the same thing as that being true. What is true is that you don't have the same energy you did before for work. That's okay. Being aware of your limits is far better for you and your clients than denying them.

Lean in to your support system

I don't just mean family. At a time like this, you need people to lean on who have no emotional investment in the current crisis. You need friends and loved ones who can give you five minutes of love and support. And for your business's sake, you need to call in your work support system. Ask them:

* How do they cope with crises on work time?
* How much should you tell your clients and how did you phrase it?
* How long did it take before you got back to full speed?
* Did you feel ashamed, guilty and scared that you're business would never recover if you weren't at full capacity at all times?

That last question is perhaps the hardest to ask, but as therapist William Horstman told me for a story on how people shut down when they're under stress, most of our first instincts are to isolate. But the best thing we can do is invite other trusted business people into our world and ask for help.

(Caveat: the key word here is "trusted." This is not a conversation for just any coworker. It needs to be someone who's not competitive, not a gossip and who knows you pretty well.)


A good friend often tells me when I'm under stress, "You should meditate every day, except when you're stressed. Then, you should meditate twice a day."

Don't meditate regularly? Well, then starting now will be an extra treat. You won't believe how much better you'll feel.

And you don't have to do it alone. There are plenty of CDs on meditation and if you bring your laptop to the hospital, you can even do a short guided meditation distributed by some Web sites.

If you can just sit for five minutes and breath, you'll recover faster from your family crisis and be more centered.

ANd finally, remember to have faith. If you work hard at your business, you've created a network of clients who know your value. Think and write about how to approach them and then keep them updated as you ease back into work. They're people, after all. They want to help and are looking forward to you being back at full speed because I'm sure you can help them.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Serenity Tip: Radio Silence

Recently, several self-employed people have told me that the biggest block to their serenity during the day is compulsive checking of email.

Boy, do I hear you. I love the little "ding!" of my email program to tell me that something new has arrived. Whether it's a coupon from Staples or an email offering me work, I seem to have the same Pavlovian response. And boy does it make it hard for me to complete tasks.

The worst is when I get an email that unnerves me or angers me in some way--and then I'm off and running, and the smooth progression of my day grinds to a halt.

But I had an inspiration on Friday that I thought I'd share.

I've heard several people say that it's OK to turn off your email while you're hard at work. I've also heard people say it's okay to relegate your email time to a certain part of the day, but I've never been able to do it. Like I said, there's something gratifying and compulsive about that little ding.

On Friday, though, I was on deadline with two stories. Needless to say, I didn't have a lot of time for that kind of compulsivity. So when I meditated that morning, a gentle thought drifted into my mind. For some reason, I was willing to listen to it.

I set up the away message on my email for three hours--just till noon--saying that I was on deadline and would not check email until after that time. I urged them, if it was an emergency, to call me.

And guess what? No one called. No crisis broke out that I had to deal with.

Something about setting the away message on my email made me comfortable clicking off the email program. I think I often feel scared to turn it off because I'm afraid clients will think that I'm not responsive enough. And in this world on immediate accessiblity 24 hours a day, we have to work very hard to not be available, and there's a strange pressure to never set any boundaries around communication. But to do so is also to keep ourselves chained to others' needs instead of acting on our own.

It's not selfish, though. When I turned off my email, I was doing it so I could give my full attention to my client's project. It was the furthest thing from selfish. It was completely professional.

At the same time, I also turned off the ringer on my office phone so I could work without distractions. I turned off my Web browser also, except for things I needed for work.

In two short hours, I had written both stories. And I had done so calmly and happily.

It doesn't have to be a struggle. Others will understand if we give them a chance.

Does this answer your question? If not, fill me in on what I've missed and I'll answer that, too.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Plug: Freelance Workshop in the Bay Area

There's nothing quite like clicking on a Web site and seeing a big picture of your own head.

Which is a long way of saying that I'll be speaking, along with fellow freelancer Martin Cheek-Highly, about the business and craft of freelance writing on Saturday, March 15 in the Belmont, California Library.

I'll be leading the morning session on the business side and plan to discuss both how to honor your work as a professional and how to do it serenely.

If you're in the Bay Area and are interested, the event is run by the Penninsula branch of the California Writers Club.

It's $40 for non-members and is an all-day affair.

Please come and share your experience and ask your questions!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

More on sustainability

Yesterday, I met with some extremely successful, prodigious freelance writers, and we shared what was working for us and what wasn't. All that talk got me thinking of sustainability in another way.

Let's just talk about money for a minute.

I touched on this yesterday. Sustainable work may be calculated by dividing the money you're earning by the amount of time you actually want to spend working, but there are other calculations:

* How long does it take to get paid?

It's been my experience that, as a writer, it's not sustainable to work for places that pay on publication. Why? Because by doing so you're essentially giving your client a business loan: I'll write this story for you, and if your publication folds, I'll agree to take the loss. Pay on publication also hints at a client who's having financial trouble. Think of it this way: If you told the electric company that you would pay them when you had the money, they'd shut off your lights. Why are your services any more expendable?

I've had lots of clients like this, and many of the staff people I dealt with were a delight, and I loved the work itself. But I couldn't sustain myself on the several month pay cycle pay-on-publication requires.

Of course there's a place for long-paying clients, but waiting a year for payment is egregious. Especially with a startup, you may be putting yourself in a position to never get paid, and that kind of stress can cloud your serenity and your thinking, leading you to believe that the client has more power than you do.

It's okay to say no.

One of the writers I talked to last night had a brilliant plan: She went out and had a stamp made up. On her new pay-on-publication contract, she stamped it with, "Payment due by ____"--a date that was 30 days from acceptance.

She got paid in one week.

She also approached her editors and told them politely that she had "changed my payment policy. I now only accept payment on acceptance."

It worked.

Not only will that kind of self-advocacy pay for itself with a quicker--and guaranteed--return on your investment, but it creates sustainable work that allows you to keep going in a field you love.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Serenity Tip: Working Toward Sustainability

Sustainability is one of those words that's starting to get a bad rap. Read it now, and there's almost a Pavlovian response: eco, green, kitchen grease powering your car... (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But I want to talk about it from a different perspective. For something to be sustainable, it has to be sane, somewhat moderate and have the ability to be self-perpetuating. In a way, this is another definition of serenity.

Take a look at your work life: In this culture, most of us are encouraged to take part in behaviors that are not really self-perpetuating. I talked to a freelance friend the other day who goes through these cycles: Incredibly productive, working 10 hour days and taking a few hours off on the weekends, getting a lot done, making deadlines, making money. And then she crashes, and can't work for weeks.

Everything is big: Big work, big rest. As a self-employed person you may be familiar with this cycle. And there's something natural about boom and bust cycles, even when it comes to productivity and energy.

But. There is another way.

This gets to that other dreaded buzz word: "balance." Balance can be a bludgeon people use to harangue those of us who put work first. But instead, think about it this way:

* How do you really want to spend your time?
* How are you spending your time?
* What parts of your life give you the most joy?

It could be that the answers to those three things are all completely different. Or it could be that they're pretty well in line.

Then ask yourself:

* How can I sustain those things I love doing?

For work, that could be nurturing your relationship with clients you particularly enjoy working with or who assign you projects that are really fulfilling.

And then there's the other part of sustainability, which is financial:

* How much money do you need to support those values and sustain them?

That means money for trips to see far-flung loved ones, or money to support the volunteer work you love. Or it means attracting high-enough-paying clients to knock off work at 5 o'clock every night. Or taking a month off every six months to recharge your batteries.

What does sustainability look like for you?

The scary part of looking at this stuff is that it forces your to get clarity about what all your expenses actually are. It can be a shock: How much does it really cost, if you're Christian, to buy all those Christmas presents, to attend your loved ones' weddings, to go on that romantic vacation with your partner? And then how much time does it take to sustain friendships and love relationships?

Put those together and you have a new way of figuring your minimum hourly income: Divide the amount of money you need to support the life you want ongoing, by the time you need to set aside for work after you account for the time you need for things outside work.

Is that number realistic?

Before you run off and find a full time job, it's possible that it's more possible than you think. You don't need to achieve it right now, but it's a goal, just like your monthly income targets and your target clients. Let it be there, and see where you can make just a little more of it work in your real life.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Serenity Tip: Diversifying

To follow up on yesterday's post, let's talk a little more about how to set up your work to make cash flow more serene.

We've already covered how to create a cushion for your self with spending.

Now, let's talk about how to create a mix of clients to address cashflow and sustainability of your self-employed career. If you've been doing this for any length of time, you may already know this stuff. I hope this can be helpful, though.

When I started freelancing, I set out a plan:

* Find clients that pay quickly

In Six Figure Freelancing, Kelly James-Enger suggests finding clients who will pay you quickly to shore up any holes in your cash flow. Often, these are low paying clients. But if you can form a regular relationship with them, you'll have money to pull you through. And you'll have a guaranteed base of income, at least for a while.

* Find clients that pay well:

Ideally, these would be the same as the first, but many clients, I find, pay slowly if they pay well. But if you've got a balance, it won't matter much. The important thing here is to find several of these.

When you're starting out, it's easy to feel relieved when you've found a client that pays you a livable wage, but sadly one is not enough. If something happens to that one client, you're left scrambling and feeling, perhaps, like you're not being a good steward to yourself and your business.

One person I talked to recommended having no one client represent more than a quarter of your income in any month. The reasoning? A quarter of your income is easier to make up or cope with in a month than 3/4th of your income.

* Try trial and error:

Having said all this, I've found that experiencing the ebbs and flow of business naturally guide me to what I need to do to shore up cash flow. So be proud of that Big Fish client, and if for some reason it doesn't pay as expected, feel what it's like to scramble to replace most of your feelings. Create awareness by doing a written check in, meditate or at least take a day to experience what it feels like in your body, and then take the next step: seek out other abundant clients, follow up on pay, figure out what happened and add it to your list of situations that can--and will--happen in your professional life. And then accept it.

Serenity Tip: Managing Cashflow

The biggest shock to my system when I started freelancing more than two and a half years ago was the weeks between checks. I couldn't believe it. How would I survive!

This continues to be a big struggle for most self-employed people--and figuring out a sane way to handle it also means finding a way towards serenity with something that's far from serene. When it works, though, you have the stability and serenity to know that your business will support you even when the cash isn't flowing.

The number one change I made was to stop using credit cards.

I think I've mentioned this in this space before. For me, as a nascent freelancer, managing a high debt load wasn't a good business risk. Sure, I have plenty of experience running up credit card debt. I bought sweaters in college that are probably still the most expensive garments I've ever owned because of the sheer amount of interest I paid for them. But I didn't want to do that to myself this time.

So I set up a system where I borrow from myself instead of friends, family or Mastercard.

Here's how it works:

1. Aim to bring in more money than you need to live on every month.

I know, when you're just starting out, paying your bills can be a radical concept. But just aim for it.

2. When you have additional income, split it 50-40-10.

That is:

50 percent goes to a "cashflow" account, designed to fill in the holes while you wait for Client X to cough up your cash. Eventually, this account should be able to give you a regular paycheck on the 1st and the 15th of each month. You know, like a job.

40 percent goes to accruals. That can be savings you don't touch. But it can also go towards categories like "vacation," "computer repair," "office equipment," "continuing education," and more. This money should be divided between your personal needs and your professional ones. Don't skimp on personal care with this. Figure out what's most important and put a little money in both. For instance, if you're Christian, how about a "Christmas" category?

10 percent goes to fun. Yes, that's right: frivolous, silly, extravagant fun. Take your sweetie to dinner. Buy yourself those boots. Put fresh flowers in your office every week. Buy that beautiful but unnecessary soft leather binder for your day planner. The point is to reward yourself for earning more money than you need to live on. It's a motivator.

Now, there are lots of ways to do this. I have friends who take 10 percent off the top of everything they bring in and pay it into a savings account or accrual accounts. The idea is to pay themselves first, instead of letting money just pass through them to their creditors.

Do whatever works for you. But remember: That money isn't "extra"--as friends have reminded me. It's absolutely necessary for your business to support you long term.

Enjoy it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Serenity Tip: One hard thing a day

If serenity is about accepting what you can't change and acting on what you can, then this blog has spent a lot of time discussing how to let go and less about how to act when acting is called for.

Here's my suggestion of the day:

Make a list of all the hard things that make you seize up when you think of doing them--and then just try one step towards one today.

Such a list has the potential to cause more suffering than it alleviates--at least at first. Getting clear about what is stopping you, and looking at each big scary thing in its face, can feel torturous. It can look like a mountain or the Grand Canyon, depending on your sensibility. Either way, it seems like something you can't conquer.

The good think is you don't have to conquer everything at once.

If you have a business plan you may have your list of what Franklin Covey calls "big rocks" already written down: Make $X this year, break into certain publications, etc. That's a great thing. That plan should also give you steps to make those things happen: If you want to increase your income significantly, what mix of clients/projects will bring you to that income level? How much work is required?

Take one of those big things and break off a small piece to start on. Today. Don't hold back. Don't block out the business plan because it seems more like a pipe dream.

Just start, with the faith that something will shift, even if you don't get the results you want in the timeline you've determined.

If you don't have a business plan, chances are your list of scary Big Rocks may seem like a wish list instead of an action plan. So maybe your first big hard thing on the list is to finish or start your business plan. It's not too late. Gather a friend in your field and meet once a week for an hour until you get it all down. It doesn't matter if it doesn't get done till June. That just means the second half of the year will be that much more serene and prosperous for you.

The key here is to remember that mountain doesn't have to scaled today. Just make a start on it, some small bit. And then show up for it--and your business--again tomorrow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Serenity Tool: Cool It Now

Serenity Tool is a 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 a lot of people, you use a laptop for your work. I sure do. I love the portability but I hate the blistering heat it generates if it's set flush against any surface.

Of course, you should never use your computer on blankets or anything like that. But what you should do is get a cooling pad for your laptop.

Why? Because for every minute your computer is cooking, you're damaging the life of your laptop. Memory will start to degrade and your laptop's life will shorten. Want to be a good steward to your electronics? Support them by keeping them cool.

This isn't just practical. It's also spiritual. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. Unless you're an IT consultant, most self-employed people aren't good at technical repairs. If you're like me, you panic every time your computer does something weird--a program shuts down for no reason, not to mention the Blue Screen of Death. And when you have to replace a computer every year because you're not treating yours well, you're busying yourself with stuff that takes you away from growing your business.

Cooling pad options:

* The prop-up: These pads work by propping your computer a few inches off your work surface so air can circulate easily and cool the computer naturally. The advantage? It uses less energy and you can DIY with a few smal notebooks on the sides of your computer.

* The fan: This is the version I went with because i figured it would cool my computer faster. these can have two or three fans that rotate constantly to whisk hot air away from your computer.

* Bells and Whistles: You can even get a cooling pad with an LCD display and an overheating alarm. The one I went with has a USB hub and a memory card reader, also. I've never used the card reader, but love the hub because I have more devices to hook up to my laptop than it has USB ports.

Whatever you choose, be sure to look for size:

* Find one that is the size of your laptop. While I love mine, it's a little smaller than my laptop and I'm looking to replace it with one that fits my computer comfortably.
* Power source. Some power themselves through your USB port, and if you're like me, you don't have a USB port to spare.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Where's your willingness?

I've been thinking a lot about willingness lately. What I mean is this: There are things we value and things we do. Willingness is where those two overlap.

So, I can say I'm willing to have a serene business, but if I then work 20 hours a day, then what I'm showing with my actions is that I'm really willing to put work before serenity.

Conversely, if I say work is the most important thing in my life today, and I spend the day goofing off at the computer, then my willingness to live that isn't all there.

So look at your to-do list today and ask yourself if it reflects your values:

* Does it include enough time for work?
* Does it include time for family or loved ones?
* Is it a schedule that supports serenity instead of perfectionism?
* Are you allocating time to serenity practices, whatever those may be for you (facials, sports, meditation, anything that calms you is serenity)?

It's a hard list to find balance with and that's exactly where the willingness to have a serene day comes in. Serenity, unfortunately, means choices. So in order not to beat yourself up, you're going to have to privilege one thing over the other. That's okay. What is your most important value for today?

Choose it, and then stick with it.

If, for instance, you value calm but you know you have a confrontation coming with work today, you'll need to set something up with your support system to help you get back to calm before and after the event. And you'll have to set aside time for it.

This is all just a process of getting to know yourself. So for today, don't judge. Just observe. And then ask Whatever You Believe In (even if it's the doorknob) to give you the willingness to live out your value today.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dealing with a bad day

We all have them: A client strings you along and then drops a project he or she promised. You do a lot of work on a project and then the higher-ups decide to go a different direction, etc. It's enough to make a self-employed person tear her hair out.

The key is a few things:

1. Adapt the mantra: It's not personal.

It can feel very personal: It effects your work, sometimes it effects your wallet and often it effects your serenity. The only way to make it worse on yourself if you take that moment and use it to feed your monkey mind, the part of you that's always looking for a place to stash your most corrosive negative thoughts.

Now, of course it's normal for it to feel personal, but take good care of yourself by not wallowing in that thought. Every time it comes up again as a personal attack on you or your business, just repeat the mantra: "It's not personal."

2. Check in with yourself.

When I have a bad day, sometimes I'm not capable of checking in with myself until the end of the day, by which time I am so worked up and so reactionary that I'm no fun to be with, even for me. My brain is not a safe place to be in those instances.

The venerable yogi B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal modern yoga book Light On Yoga writes about his two kinds of anger:

There are two types of anger (krodha), on of which debases the mind while the other leads to spiritual growth. The root of the first is pride, which makes one angry when slighted. The prevents the mind from seeing things in perspective and makes one's judgment defective. The yogi, on the other hand, is angry with himself when his mind stoops low or when all his learning an experience fail to stop him from folly. He is stern with himself when he deals with his own faults, but gentle witht eh faults of others. Gentleness of mind is an attribute of a yoga, whose heart melts at all suffering. In him gentleness for others and firmness for himself goes hand in hand, and in his presence all hostilities are given up.

Sound like a tall order?

It is, if you try to simply will yourself into that state of mind. I'm sure there are many ways of getting to that kind of clarity: prayer, yoga, meditation, etc. But one of the ways that work for me, because I'm a writer, is to write it all down.

The key in Mr. Iyengar's concept of yogic response to anger seems to me to be a few things:

* When you're reacting to others our of pride (i.e., taking things personally) you aren't seeing clearly. So any business decisions you make in the face of such a reactive mind are bound to need correcting later--and bound to send your serenity ricocheting all over the room.

* The yogi's heart "melts at all suffering." What that means to me is that it melts at *your* suffering as well. So his charge to you, I believe, is to find a way to be "firm" with yourself/take responsibility for your part without subjecting yourself to suffering. If you're prone to perfectionism, it's easy to take this edict as a sign that you need to beat yourself up. That's not yogic in my mind because it's full of pride. It's all about you.

So how do you separate pride from firmness? Write it all down: Your fears, your resentments, your beliefs about yourself, and what you can learn from the situation.

Then just sit with it for a bit. The thing about having a bad day is that you can't right it in an hour--at least not in my experience. If something rocks your core or your bottom line, it's going to take time to go through the feelings and feel steady again. Let it be, and continue to work on the work in front of you.

3. Reach out for support.

I write a lot about support in this blog--for good reason. There's nothing worse than gritting your teeth through a bad day and then vomitting all your fear and anxiety and resentments all over your mate when he or she returns home.

We've all been guilty of this, but here's a promise: You don't have to wait till the end of the day to get the support you need. If you set up a system of people who support the sane and serene operation of your business, you can call through that roster until you start to feel a little better. That way, if your partner gets home and he or she had had a bad day, too, you aren't adding to your own or anyone else's stress by forcing that person to be everything for you.

One warning about support, though: It's important to clear out what's your side of the street and what's out of your control before you pick up the phone. Otherwise, you run the risk of simply ramping yourself up and feeling more anxious, fearful and caught by the monkey mind.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Serenity Tip: Setting Priorities

The other day, a dear friend called feeling overwhelmed by all the things in front of her to do in the next three hours. In her jumbled mind, so filled was it with self-blame for not having gotten more done sooner that her tasks spread out in front of her infinitely. She couldn't fathom getting everything done, let alone getting that magic amount done: "Enough."

Time management is a complicated skill, and there are a million people out there ready to tell you how to do it. Like everything else, though, finding the tool that works for you depends on cherry-picking, to some extent.

Here are a few of the things that work for me: Perhaps they will work for you.

Write it down

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, author David Allen really encourages people to write stuff down. Until you do, you'll feel like my friend: stressed because you're trying to manage all those tasks in your head, instead of on paper, where they metamorphize into discrete and manageable tasks.

So with my friend, I asked her for each thing she needed to do, when they were due, and how long she estimated they would take.

I listed these out.


I love my Franklin Covey planner, mostly for the little to-do list it includes on each day. But the real brilliance of the Franklin Covey plan is its encouragement to divide things into three categories:

A-- essential; must get done today or the world ends.
B-- important but not essential.
C-- optional.

With my friend, I think asked her to rank each item--it turned out there were only five items, and only two turned out to be essential.

Then, Franklin Covey recommends numbering each item, according to when you'll do them, not how important they are. My to-do list usually starts this way:

A1: Written check in
A2: Meditate
A3: Call one of my support people
B4: Marketing. Sure, you could consider this "essential," as any business will die without it. But unless I'm plumb out of work, I consider this to be an important thing to do no matter what.

And then I get to the work that's attached to an actual paycheck.

Your "essential" items are probably different from yours. This is just what works for me.

After my friend and I talked for a bit about her work, she was able to differentiate between the things she felt like she had to do because otherwise she'd be embarassed and the things that were actually essential for meeting deadlines.

And that frantic anxiety abated.

Give it a try. Or even better: tell me what prioritization system works best for you.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Serenity Tip: Knowing Your Value

Not long ago, I wrote about transfering your creative skills to your business life. But here's another good reason to cultivate your skills:

Better negotiation

The first thing Erik Sherman will tell you about negotiation is to remember the value you bring to any project. If you're a perfectionist or simply prone to negative thinking, that's not just the first step but the most important one. Here's what I mean:

When a client contacts you to do work, do you negotiate pay?
Do you know what your hourly rate should be?
Do you believe you deserve it?

I know many freelance writers who don't value their own skills enough--or at least struggle to value their own skills enough--to ask for the money they need to make their career sustainable. They may have a business plan. They may even know how much they need to earn per billable hour to make their minimum income. But without the belief that their skills matter and that they are offering something of value to their clients, they constantly feel like their clients are doing them a favor by hiring them. Without that sense of value, they can't put the rest of their plan into action.

So don't skip this step. If you're particularly prone to focusing on the parts of your work that aren't good enough, make a list of your skills, and the good things editors say about you and put it behind your computer monitor or on the wall in front of where you look most often (obviously, this should be out of view of your clients).

To help, here are some questions to ask yourself:

* What compliments do you get most often from clients?
* What skills have you fought hard to develop?
* What do you like most about your work and what energizes you?
* Are you good with deadlines?
* Do you return calls quickly?
* Are you professional--do you fess up to errors, do you double check facts, do you respond quickly to edits (if you're a writer)?
* Are you always looking for ways to improve your work? (This is a twist on "negative thinking:" if you are focused on what you didn't do perfectly the last time, you're also focusing on changing it. You don't make the same mistake twice or three times.)

These may seem like small things to you but they are of great value to your clients--and they often make the difference between hiring you and another writer. You become the go-to contractor for clients by having these skills.

So the next time you go to negotiate your price, remember the value you provide and ask for what you deserve.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Quick Escapes at Your Computer

If you're fried and procrastinating it could be your brain's plea for a break. So don't just visit snarky Web sites or engage in gossip. Instead, there are some great quick-break meditation sites on the web that can get you to real relaxation and help you get productive again:

The Meditation Room

This site offers two great things: Instructions on how to meditate and also guided meditations via RealPlayer Audio. The only bummer is that if you have a Mac, you won't be able to hear them. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Relaxing Image Meditation

I know it sounds like snake oil to say that looking at pretty pictures is anything other than, well, pretty. But research shows that guided imagery can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, as well as blood pressure. This site offers a slideshow of pretty pictures combined with tips on meditation.

Guided Relaxation Audio Files for Anxiety

This site, run by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Health Services is a treasure trove of both information for identifying and relieving anxiety and of guided audio files on learning relaxation breathing exercises. These come in both RealAudio files and Mac-compatible MP3 downloads and are only a few minutes long. So squeeze them in between appointments.

Deep Breathing Relaxation Audio Sessions

The University of Wisconsin Madison University Health Center offers 18 different short audio files for deep breathing relaxation. Titles like "breath awareness," "peaceful focus" and "brief muscle relaxation" are supported by voice-over explanations or you can choose fils with only harp or nature sounds to support your relaxation. But maybe avoid the "sleep technique" file until bedtime. You don't want to drift off before that big phone call with a new client.


I know. The same site full of snowboarding wipeouts and Asian kids lip syncing to the Backstreet Boys also has a slew of guided imagery and guided meditation videos that can give you a nice break in your day.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Serenity Tip: Gentleness

On this blog I offer a lot of techniques and tips for staying serene on the job. But I would hate for anyone to use this blog as a means to beat yourself up. You don't have to track your time, do a mid-day check-in every day, finish your business plan today, or do yoga and meditate every day.

These are all good things, sure, but too much too fast guarantees you won't keep any of it up for very long. And if theres one thing serenity isn't, it's attempting to be perfect by doing everything and then beating yourself up for not being serene.

So if you're feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, follow the suggestion of a friend of mine: "Take what you like and leave the rest."

Basically, like any toolbox, these tips can be picked up any time you need them. You don't need to do them all day every day. And if one really works for you but you fall off the wagon with it, that's okay. Just become aware and when you're ready, you'll pick it up again.

Take good care of yourself today--whatever that looks like. And remember that however much of a workaholic you are with bad boundaries and all the rest, it took you years to get that way. You aren't going to let go of those habits overnight, and you don't have to. To make a change to a more serene life, what you have to do is just keep trying. Eventually, it'll take.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Serenity Tip: Facing Procrastination

We've all done it: We've cruised around our favorite message boards and silly Web sites, organized our desk, done laundry--anything but the task in front of us.

And then, if you're the least bit conscientious, you spend another few hours beating yourself for your lost productivity. Obviously, this can kill your serenity, and become an endless cycle.

So my gentle nudge of the day is to embrace your procrastination.

There are a few reasons to do this: First, if you're in a creative field, chances are your procrastination is part of your process. I have to constantly remind myself can also be another way of saying that I'm working out fine points or organizing thoughts subconsciously. It'll pass.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, if you don't accept it, your resistance will be worse than the procrastination itself.

So how do you get comfortable with it--and then overcome it? Start by getting to know why you're resisting in the first place. What's the fear? What's the anxiety?

Face it. And then assess what's realistic. It may also help to track your time to see what's taking you the longest and how you're really spending your time. You may find that what feels like procrastination to you is actually a reasonable amount of time to spend taking care of other, important items, like your spirituality or admin work.

If you find you still can't get yourself to work, procrastination might be a serious problem for you. In that case, consider these tips care of Procrastinators Anonymous:

Break It Down: Break down projects into specific action steps; include preparation tasks in the breakdown.

Visualization: Plan what to do, then imagine yourself doing it. The more specific and vivid your visualization, the better. See yourself doing the task, and doing it well.

Focus on Long-Term Consequences: Procrastinators have a tendency to focus on short-term pleasure, and shut out awareness of long-term consequences. Remind yourself how panicked and awful you'll feel if the task isn't done, then imagine how good it will feel when the task is finished.

Avoid Time Bingeing: One reason procrastinators dread starting is that once they start they don't let themselves stop. Plan to work on a task for a defined period of time, then set a timer. When the timer goes off, you're done.

Use Small Blocks of Time: Procrastinators often have trouble doing tasks in incremental steps, and wait for big blocks of time that never come. When you have small blocks of time, use them to work on the task at hand.

Avoid Perfectionism: Procrastinators have a tendency to spend more time on a task than it warrants, so tasks that should be quick to do take an agonizingly long time. Notice this tendency and stop yourself. Some things require completion, not perfection.

Develop Routines: To help structure your day and make a habit of things you always need to do, develop routines for what you do when you wake up, regular tasks of your workday, and what you need to do before going to bed.

Bookend Tasks and Time: Use the Bookending board on the P.A. Web site to check in throughout the day, or at the beginning or end of specific tasks you are dreading.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Serenity Tip: The Mid-Day Check-In

If you're anything like me, you power through your days, clicking through the items on your to-do list until you retire at night with a jumbled brain. Meditation helps with this, of course. But a friend constantly reminds me that I have another option. Now I'll pass that option on to you:

The Mid-Day Check-In

When you hit Frazzled on your daily stress meter, stop what you're doing. Move away from the computer or the office. Sit somewhere quiet (if possible) and get out a pad and a pen. Then make a list of the following:

* What you resent and why (this can be people--including you--and they don't have to be rational).
* What you're afraid of (those nagging fears that get louder in your head the more you ignore them? Write them down.)
* What things are out of your control (I call this my acceptance list--as in, "I accept that I'm powerless over the future and worrying about it won't change it.")
* What you're grateful for at this moment (it might be having a minute to think, or maybe you just landed a big fish client or maybe you're grateful for the flexibility of your self-employed life.)

Whatever those things are, write them down. Then take a minute to breath deep and imagine each one dropping into the ether.

After taking that break, you may find you're more centered and more ready to tackle the next thing on your list with compassion and poise.