Thursday, March 27, 2008

More on Rejection: Strangle Your Darlings

As I'm working on a pitch today, I'm going to remember this:

The time to be sentimental about the story is when I write it. Once it's out there, that time is over. I can put aside sentiment like I put it aside when I'm editing. There's nothing so precious it can't be reworked and re-sent.

I'm a big believer that what makes you successful creatively can make you successful in your business. For instance, I'm curious. It makes me a good reporter, but I can also apply it to figuring out how the business side works. And I'm friendly: I can make that work for me with sources and for networking.

So what's the creative equivalent to rejection?

Does the phrase "strangle your darlings" mean anything to you?

It's the phrase my dear journalism professor used when he talked about being unsentimental about those beautifully written tangents that end up detracting from the point of the story. Or maybe the story was too long and needed to be trimmed. You can't cut out the essential info. So sometimes those lovely turns of phrase have gotta go. It's best for the whole.

It's the same with marketing. If we're honest, we writers have to admit that we love our queries and nurture them from glimmers of ideas. In these moments, we aren't thinking of ourselves as business people with a quota of queries to send out but as artists birthing creative visions into the world. When those ideas get rejected, we feel rejected. We think of the work we put in and we suffer over the wasted effort. We feel like misunderstood geniuses. C'mon. You know it's true. And even though I am writing this sarcastically, I know how much it hurts.

There's a place for such passion. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't be any good at our jobs. But moving on from rejection is the same as moving on from those lovely turns of phrase that we're convinced, if we're just permitted this tangent--or those extra words--we can make the piece sing.

The skill to cultivate here is a studied detachment. We can do it after we've let the story alone for a few days and come back to it with a fresh eye. We can be merciless and unsentimental. We have to be that, too, to be good at our jobs.

We need to remember we can be unsentimental, too, to get over the fear of rejection--and to bounce back quickly when our efforts are rejected. Being a writer may be about ideas. But being a full-time freelance writer is a volume business. As Erik Sherman says so ably in his recent blog post on the subject:

Another part (of the reaction to rejection) is not so normal, because it involves taking rejection as personal failure when you don’t accomplish what literally cannot be done. One is when the freelancer takes everything personally. Do you agree with your significant other on everything? Probably not, and you’re far less close to your clients, so why expect that much acceptance? You may be involved in your business, but you are not the same as your business. Focus on your decisions and the efforts you make, not on others.

Sherman is right: The key to serenity around rejection is focusing on what we have control over. Heck, that's the key to every type of serenity.

As you get responses from editors today, can you treat your queries like you'd treat a favorite word or phrase?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Serenity Q&A: Getting Over Rejection Creatively

You ask, we answer. To tackle the ever-present question of coping with rejection, I asked Kristen Fischer, author of Creatively Self-Employed: How Writers and Artists Deal with Career Ups and Downs, to explain the resilience necessary to continue to market yourself in the fact of rejection. Have a question? Contact me!

How big of a problem is rejection for self-employed people and is it different from rejection in a full-time job?

This is huge for self-employed people. It's a very real, legitimate fear. Think about it--when you work a 9-to-5, you may be hesitant to offer up ideas, but you know you'll have your job even if they're not approved. For a freelance writer like myself, if they get rejected for a big job, it can cost a month's mortgage. That's why it's vital to be using lots of marketing techniques and not putting all your eggs in one basket.

I find that the people who seriously want to be in business will do what they have to in order to get out of their own way. It's not easy, and it requires baby steps. That's not to say that someone serious about their business won't have this fear--just that if you really want to be a business, you'll have to do many things you're uncomfortable with. I think overcoming this fear takes time. It's a trial and error sort of thing, so creatives need to have the support systems in place to help them take these vital baby steps.

How does rejection hurt us?

In the beginning of my career, rejection would really send me into some tailspins. I would become depressed and feel like I was never going to make it. Luckily, my husband was very supportive. Plus, I knew that one rejection didn't mean I was a bad writer--I learned that rejection, when you put your all into something and do it according to industry standards, is simply a way of telling us that something isn't the right fit. When you have the attitude that everything will fall into place, and you continually work on your craft, you'll get better at what you do.

Rejection is to be expected; simply by knowing that you'll get rejected (especially in the beginning of your creative career) will help you let it bounce off your back. And try not to beat yourself up over beating yourself up--it's normal to be bummed when something doesn't work out.

Rejection hurts us most when we don't take the time to understand it. After I would get a rejection on a book proposal, for example, I'd let myself be bummed for the afternoon. But I'd keep going. I knew that simply by persisting, I could beat the odds. My second book Ramen Noodles, Rent and Resumes: An After-College Guide to Life, is due out in April!

How does it help us?

Rejection, once you get past the anger and sadness, is a real motivator! One woman in my book Creatively Self-Employed: How Writers and Artists Deal with Career Ups and Downs, suggested becoming a "rejection collector." She says if you're getting rejected, you know that you're putting yourself out there and therefore doing something right!

Once you get over the bitterness of it, use it to excel!

How do you take care of yourself when you've been rejected? How much time should you spend babying yourself and how much do you just need to tell yourself to get over it?

This is a great question. Sometimes I'd be upset for an hour, sometimes for a few hours, or into the following days. I never let it eat me up too much--I knew I needed to bring in the bacon, that I had done it before, and that I could do it again. That's what I tell myself to this day when something doesn't work out. Things still fall apart sometimes for me. I recently lost a great-paying job but realized that the angst it caused me wasn't worth it. I trust the process. I go with the ebbs and flows, but at the same time, I stay proactive and never stop trying. Maybe I need a day off; I give that to myself now. I know how vital recharging is.

Anything else you'd add about rejection and self-employment?

I just want people to know that it's normal to experience rejection. Talk to others--even some friends online in your industry--and get the support you need. Realize that self-employment isn't for everyone. If you're so bummed about not getting a gig and you're dragging for days and not continuing to market yourself, working solo may not be right for you. It doesn't mean you're weak if you feel disappointed about
something--but it says a lot about your character if you can pick yourself back up after something falls apart. That's really what separates the successful freelancers from the rest!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Where Does Your Happiness Come From?

The May issue of Yoga Journal just arrived in my mailbox this week (May? In March? Really. I don't know why, either.) and with it a great story on happiness. What writer Phillip Moffitt says is that there are three kinds of happiness:

1. Happiness when things go your way
2. A sense of well-being even when things go horribly awry
3. Joy that comes from "no longer being identified with your ego sense of self. You become liberated from the fear and suffering that inevitably comes when you're identified with the ego, which is always coping with the fragility, uncertainly and unavoidable losses of physical life."

Fragility. Uncertainty. Unavoidable losses.

Sound familiar? As a self-employed person this is part of every single day. We can't know what's going to happen next. What Moffitt offers is that we don't have to be a slave to this fact.

Let's apply this way of thinking to rejection:

Of course we're happiest when our marketing efforts are accepted, celebrated and our every email is given a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue. But the cold, dim reality of my daily life is that only 10 percent of any of my queries sell.

Yes, it's true. I've been tracking in on a handy-dandy spreadsheet.

There are lots of things I can do with this fact. One of them is invest in becoming better at querying. But the other is cultivating what Moffitt calls a sense of mindfulness over the joy and happiness in our lives.

Here's what I want you to do:

* Make a list of all the ways in which you've been taken care of in the past when you're marketing efforts have been rejected.
* Take a look at your list of regular clients and think about how they've sustained you.
* Scan through your list of queries that are out there right now.

I don't know what this does for you, but what it does for me is put rejection in context. Yes, that great query I'm in love with didn't fit with the publication for which I thought it would be perfect. That's sad. But I can look at the ways in which I'm still getting to write about the things I love. And I'll look at the query and prepare to send it out again.

This is not to say I'm perfect at this. Far from it. Freelancers in San Francisco will know that one of the hardest things for me is to turn around and resend a query after a rejection. I lose steam.

But one of the things I'm working on is drafting more than one angle for a query at a time so that if it gets rejected, I don't have to labor over a new version. It's a way of keeping my marketing--and my business--vital.

This practice, of remembering that we're taken care of when those rejections come pouring in, is the second kind of happiness Moffitt describes. Sure we'd all love to get to a point where we don't invest in the ego's fears, worries, resentments and regrets. But what's most helpful to me in the face of rejection is the memory and experience of being okay every other time this has happened.

So when I get rejections and take it personally--as I inevitably do--I remember that feeling of being taken care of, of continued well-being despite circumstances.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday's Mantra: Being a Good Steward

This week, when you're stressed and doubtful, repeat this mantra:

I am a good steward of my gifts and to share them with the community in loving kindness.

To believe that mantra you have to take on faith (or at least agree with) the following suppositions:

1. That there is some talent you offer that's unique and special.
2. That they are gifts freely given by the Entity of your choice.
3. That to keep them to yourself is a breach of your contract with that Entity.
4. That your job is to make your gifts available and that by doing so you are a force for good in the world.
5. That you can have both fulfilling work that showcases your talents and enough money to live on. They aren't mutually exclusive.

These can all sound namby-pamby and hopelessly naive.

I disagree on both counts. This is a really important part of why I do the work I do and it affects how I approach it, especially in the fact of rejection. This week, I'll be writing a lot about rejection so I think it's important to frame that discussion with a new way of looking at our work.

So let's break it down:

* Yes, talent is only a small part of any self-employed person's success. I know: I work really hard at my business. I spend a lot of hours querying and writing and rewriting. None of that is about talent. It's about perserverance and drive and being willing to sit my butt in the chair and write.

* My talents, however, are something esle. They are gifts I didn't have to earn or learn. Being articulate (though perhaps not in this particular post), being curious, being interested in helping people transform their lives and knowing how to translate those values into words on the page, are things I didn't have to work for. I'm grateful every day to have them.

* Not everything you do must be fulfilling. There's always going to be servicable work. But when I market myself, I'm often writing queries to dream markets on subjects I love. I have to believe in this work to do it--and to keep doing it in the face of rejection.

* If the idea that keeping your talents to yourself out of fear or self-judgment sounds too hippie-dippy for you... well, then you may not enjoy the rest of this particular blog. But you can also think of it as a motivational tool. Especially is you're of the state of mind that you want to be helpful, the idea that keeping your special talents and value to yourself is selfish may push you outside your comfort zone enough to write that query you've been stalling on.

So when you're feeling, as I sometimes do, that you're reaching too far outside your comfort zone, remember that it's not about you. It's about treating your gifts like the precious things they are, and being a good steward to them by creating a structure that allows them to flourish. That means rejection sometimes--because marketing is about rejection more than anything else.

Think about what feeds your talents this week. For me, it's everything from contact with other freelancers to following up on invoicing in order to sustain this work to reading books that expand my skills.

How are you a steward to your talent?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Mantra Check-in: So How'd You Do?

This week I asked you to consider whether your well-laid plans were really the best way for you to go. Or, to put it another way, I asked you to consider whether not following those plans--or fate intervening--was really a problem.

And then we talked about recession. Coincidence?

You know the drill.

So how did it work for you?

It was the best mantra I could have chosen for myself this week. In this roller-coaster world of self-employment, you never know what's going to happen: You're busy until you're really, really not. You've got a new client... until you see the contract. You have a steady gig... until they go in a different direction. I feel like this week has been a lesson in the figurative bobbing and weaving involved in the freelance life. You've got to stay on your toes. You've got to stay nimble, and you've got to keep moving. If you stay behind to focus on what just happened and how it doesn't fit with your plans, you stagnate.

So just for today, keep going. I know I will.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

More on Managing Serenity During Recession

If you haven't seen it already, Erik Sherman has a very smart post about how to adjust your work worldview during a recession.

What I think is most helpful about his suggestions, which include marketing more, being less picky about projects and looking for clients that are financially stable, is that the focus is on what you can control--not what is happening out there in the world that you can't control.

We can't control our clients' work flow (when they can assign a project, for example.)

We can't control our clients' cashflow--but we can do our best to seek out clients that seem stable.

We can't control--or even really know--what pressure our clients are getting from higher-ups.

That's not our job. Our job is to make their jobs easier by being professional, upfront and enthusiastic about what we can control: the work in front of us.

It's that old 1 percent rule again.

What can you focus on today that's in your control and possible today?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Serenity Tip: Diversify

How many clients do you have? Does any one of them account for more than a quarter of your income?

If you're like most people, your answer is yes. As we head into a shrinking economy (or maybe we're already there--who knows) diversifying your clients is more important than ever. And it doesn't just make business sense. It makes sense for your serenity, too.

I'll give you an example: One of my favorite clients is also my longest-running clients. The money isn't phenomenal, but it's a steady stream of work on things I love to do. Then cut to yesterday, when I got that email. You know the one: The dear-john email:

Thank you for your years of service. We love working with you but we're taking this work in another direction and we won't be needing your content anymore.

Obviously, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

When I came-to this morning, I looked around me, at all the other amazing clients I also have. Of course it's upsetting to lose this client. I love them. They've been a true joy to work for. But this loss is not going to keep me up at nights. It's not going to leave me panicking and looking through my spreadsheets for how I'm going to make ends meet. It's not going to leave me worrying about things I can't control, like what I did wrong and how many other clients are going to go the same way. It's simply a very sad change in my workflow.

That, my friends, is serenity.

It's not getting and keeping your clients forever, because you can't do that. It's simply impossible. It's getting clients you love, doing your work with love and then looking for other clients.

This just happens to be the first client I've ever had drop me. But I guarantee you it won't be the last. It's part of the business. What was this week's mantra again? Just because things aren't going as planned doesn't mean they're going haywire.

So where are you looking for new clients? Are you prepared for your clients to leave?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Serenity Tip: Maximizing your Five-Minute Break

Las week I wrote about setting a timer and taking five minutes to stretch your body to keep yourself from suffering workplace injuries.

Well an eagle-eyed reader passed on a way to get the most out of that five minute break:

Cheryl Miller's Sit and Get Fit E-Course

The term "e-course" makes it sound fancier than it is. Basically, it's 21-days of progressive stretches, strengthening and exercise that can be done in five minutes at your desk.

So if you were daunted by the fancy yoga exercises I proposed in my post on taking a break, or if you want the support of a daily email, check it out and sign up. Already it's teaching deep breathing techniques and ways to loosen tight muscles.

Subscribe. Save the email. And when that timer dings, pull out the emails and follow along. It's fast, simple and really helpful.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday's Mantra: Expectation vs. Reality

Every Monday, I propose a mantra for the week to help you focus your work and interrupt those self-defeating patterns that rob us of serenity. Need a mantra for something specific? Email me at Heather at post your thoughts below.

For this week, let's focus on this mantra:

Just because things aren't going as planned doesn't mean they're going haywire.

You set up an interview and the source never calls. You exchange a million emails and phone calls with a client only to have your latest marketing effort rejected. It can feel like everything is out of whack. But just because things aren't going the way you planned them doesn't mean they're going wrong.

What do I mean? Let me give you an example: I'm coming out of an extremely abundant, busy period that required a lot of balancing of projects. Often I woke in the morning feeling like the day had already gotten away from me and worried about the things from the day before that didn't go according to plan. There didn't seem to be enough time, enough talent and enough stamina to make it through.

Yet every day I did. Somehow--in a way that I didn't plan for, despite all my best efforts--I got exactly what I needed for the day. I got my projects done--and not just done but done well.

In these moments, it's not enough to plan: You have to choose your perspective. Are things out of control because my carefully planned to-do list flew out the window every day? Or is my Higher Power guiding me to a gentler and more surprising way of accomplishing my dreams? This is along the same lines as last week's mantra, but it's not the same thing. Whether you struggle over how your day is going is beside the point for our purposes this week.

The point this week is to focus on the positive: What is working? What is working out better than you had planned? Where are the little surprises and blessings coming from today? Is it more important for me to feel in control or for things to work out?

This gets back to what the Buddha says: Among other things, everything and everyone changes. We have to plan for the day but expect things to change. It's a dynamic. And it's also not personal. It's not a judgment of us if our greatest business plans don't happen as we expect. All we can do is make the effort.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Serenity Tool: Time is of the Essence

I bought this cute little strawberry timer the other week with the intention of timing my oatmeal on the stove. But this week I found another use for it:

Setting it to give my body a break. Here's what Dr. Davis Liu, author of Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely recommended to me this week:

1. Get yourself a timer.
2. Set it for one hour.
3. At the end of the hour, do some shoulder shrugs, exercise your wrists, shoulders chest and back.
4. Practice a minute of deep breathing
5. Get back to work.

As he put it, "Is anything really going to fall apart if you leave your desk for five minutes?"

My answer was no.

I discovered that that small, antiquated piece of machinery could make my body happier and make my job less dangerous to my health.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, writers and editors reported 220 injuries on the job severe enough to miss at least one day of work in 2006, the most recent date for which statistics are available. None of them, oddly, were in the repetitive strain category (which tells me, more than anything, that writers aren't reporting them to their bosses, or, like us, they're self-employed). What I know from my own experience, though, is that when I sit for a long time and then stand up, my body feels welded in place, and my stress level grows.

I don't know much about Chinese medicine, but is sure feels like my qi is blocked. Just saying.

I did this yesterday--imperfectly--and it was a relief. Oddly, it served another purpose: It helped me be mindful of how I was spending my time and helped me track how I was spending my time.

Give it a shot today and see how it feels.

Mantra Check-in: So How'd You Do?

This week's mantra was:

I love my job and I don't have to suffer to achieve my dreams.

How'd you do with it?

I have to say that, ironically, I struggled mightily with it. This week is the culmination of one of the most abundant periods in my freelance life so far. But I also notice I feel run-down and, by yesterday morning, I woke up dreading everything I had in front of me for the day. Not surprisingly, I needed get everything done off my to-do list.

Today I woke up with a new motivation. An addendum to this mantra might be:

I accept that struggling has never made my work better.

Desperation is another matter. Sometimes I have to be desperate--for serenity, work, money, etc.--to be willing to make the changes necessary to my behavior.

So my intention for the day is just to notice the joy I get in my work. I'm likely to enjoy it more that way--and, I'm hoping, struggle less.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Serenity Enemy: Recession Fears

If you read any portion of the news these days, you're hearing all about the iminent or current recession. It's enough to make anyone panic in their half-off shoes. And if you're self-employed, perhaps even moreso.

Yesterday, I posted to a freelance writers Web site seeking advice on how to cope with the recession, and here are the suggestions I got:

* Be choosy about which clients you take on: Stick with stable companies. Start-ups may not be the best option right now.
* Market yourself like crazy: Sales is always a numbers game, and even moreso now. Get those queries and marketing proposals out the door, and increase the number you do.
* Build relationships: You're more likely to get the jobs if you have a connection with the editor. Set aside time every week to meet with editors or other writers. Not only is this great support, but these are the folks who are going to offer you assignments.
* Don't be precious about assignments: Take what's offered. You can't always do your dream assignments.
* Build up your reserves: Now more than ever, it's important to have money saved to support yourself during down times that may be even more inevitable now. Some self-employed friends put 10 percent of every check into a prudent reserve. Can you afford that? I can't, not right now. But I am putting a smaller percentage aside.

And I would add to all of this:

* Be mindful of how *your* business is doing, not what the news says.

The last four months have been the most abundant of my short career as a freelancer. It's not hitting me yet. What is hitting me is the fear of recession and what it can do to me. There are lots of reasons for this but one of them is experiential.

My first memory of a recession affecting me was in 1987. Black Monday didn't just conjure images of the Depression, which I was studying in school, but brought real worries to bear: My dad owned his own business and it didn't take long for all his clients to dry up and for the business, funded by his retirement savings, to go under. It was a bleak moment in our family, but we recovered from it.

The important thing for me is to let go of that body memory and focus on my 1 percent: What can I control in this situation? How many queries I send, how much contact I make and how much money I save. The rest, unfortunately, isn't up to me. And the more I focus on what I can't control--the U.S. economy, my clients' freelance budngets, etc.--the less serenity I have and the less energy I have for doing my part.

What's your worry about the recession, and what's the one thing you can do today to help yourself?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More on motivation

So yesterday we started a discussion on how to change a habit. Today, let's continue it by looking at someone else's take: Specifically, the brilliant blog Unclutterer's post on using brainwashing techniques to break a bad habit.

I know, creepy and crazy. But hear them out.

The post is based on the book How to Work the Competition Into the Ground, which studied how brainwashing techniques can be applied to workplace motivation. Some of the techniques Unclutterer points out are creepy, like subliminal thought (I don't know about you, but I'm unlikely to motivate to record short messages and put them between songs on iTunes--but that's just me). Others seem less cult-like and more about awareness and mindfulness to me. They don't have to be creepy.

And of course, the main difference between a cult and you is the purpose of these tools: You're not in a cult (as far as I know); you just want to be able to tear yourself away from email, clean off your desk, get better at marketing, etc. And of course, none of these tools, by themselves, are going to take all your money and separate you from your family. But losing your serenity and becoming a workaholic might...

Here are my favorites:

* "Repetitious self talk:" Hey, we know that one! That's a mantra!

* Spend time at events that get you motivated to do the thing you don't want to do: If your problem is office clutter, as they suggest, then "[a]ttending a conference on uncluttering, going to hear a motivational speaker, watching a show like Clean Sweep or even reading Unclutterer can help you to think about the subject in a positive way and believe that you are capable of being an uncluttered person."

I'll add that you can also create the experience you want to have. This is actually a reason I started this blog. I wanted to spend time every day thinking about how I can apply my mindfulness and yogic techniques to my life as a freelancer.

* Get help: Having a guide in the particular area where you're trying to create a new practice--organizing your desk or emails, starting a yoga practice, sending more marketing ideas to potential clients--helps you get there. That shouldn't be any shock. The trick is finding the right guru for the job. As Unclutterer rightly points out, that can be a professional organizer. It can be a job coach. It can be carefully selected support people.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When is Enough Enough?

I've written about dealing with office clutter and email clutter before in this space. Today, let's talk about clutter as a symbol of all those intractable bad habits.

Here's the short version: You may hate your messy desk. You may hate that you get drawn away from work every time your email pings. But until the pain of continuing to do your bad habit surpasses the pain inherent in making a change--any change--you won't do it. Instead, you'll gnash your teeth, you'll complain a lot (in an effort to motivate yourself) and you'll keep right on doing it.

I've been in this situation plenty of times. Yoga is a great example, actually. I'm really interested in doing a daily yoga practice. But the discipline it takes to develop a daily practice is a muscle--one that hurt when I flexed it. I was unprepared for the pain: the nagging I did to myself for hours before my bedtime yoga practice, the berating I did when I found myself glued to my seat watching some horrible reality show or other, and the stiffness of my actual body. I knew I'd feel better if I did it. But I didn't want to. I'm naturally sedentary. It takes a lot to get me off the couch or out of bed.

I did it for a while and then when I got the killer flu in January, my practice all but ceased. Then last night I had a massage. I gave it to myself as a treat after a particularly abundant month last night and as a reward for the very busy week I have in front of me this week. But it had an odd effect: I tossed and turned all night and my back muscles were inflamed. After my morning meditation, I found myself on my mat, stretching those overworked muscles. Doing yoga.

For me, the "pain" was literal. But it doesn't have to be for you. What's important is that you finally find the motivation to let go of the habit that's no longer serving you. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean you're ready to let go of it.

So for today, ask yourself:

* What's the habit that's robbing me of serenity?
* How long have I had it?
* What is it doing to me?
* What is it doing for me?
* How much do I really want to change?

It's a dynamic. It's a dance, letting go of a bad habit. It's not going to happen overnight. But with awareness, you'll start to see how much it's costing you. And then slowly and gently, you'll be ready to let go of it once. Then twice, and then it becomes its own new habit. But you can't will yourself through it. You have to practice awareness before anything will change.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Monday's Mantra: Struggling is Optional

In this blog, I've written about mantras before, but now I'm starting a new Monday-only feature that gives you a chance to start the week off right. Please let me know if this feature is helpful to you or for what issue youneed a mantra. Email me at Heather at post your thoughts below.

You've probably heard the old axiom, "Pain is mandatory; suffering is optional." It's usually uttered by those pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap drill sargeant types--the "quit yer whining" variety of motivational speaker.

Let's take this out of that context for a moment, though.

If you're a perfectionist, you probably have a tendency to put yourself down pretty harshly in an effort to meet your very high expectations. It can be effective: Maybe you wouldn't reach your unrealistic goals if you hadn't have pushed yourself out of your comfort zone. Maybe your business plan or income goals would have been an esoteric exercise if you weren't willing to push yourself hard to get there. There's something to be said for pushing.

But sometimes, if you use self-condemnation to motivate yourself, that pushing can turn into shoving and leave you feeling (pardon the extension of this analogy) beaten up.

In other words, your mantra, without realizing it, may be:

You're not doing enough. Nothing you do is enough.

How'd you like to meet that bully in a dark alley? I wouldn't.

How do you know if you're suffering for your work? The best barometer is self-pity: Why is this happening to me? Why is everything so hard? First of all, pushing yourself is hard, of course. It's a good sign that you're reaching and stretching yourself. But it may also be so hard because it has to be in that worldview. It can't be regularly fun and exciting. If it were, you might not feel like you're working hard enough.

So for this week, consider taking on the mantra that you can accomplish your goals without suffering for them. Work hard, feel that stretch and the fears associated with going after your dreams. But you don't need to pay a pound of flesh to have the life you want. What's more, if you do feel like you have to punish yourself to achieve your goals, you're unlikely to enjoy them anyway.

So take a moment when you're stressed this week, breath deeply into your stomach, imagine a golden light filling you. And then say to yourself:

I love my job and I don't have to suffer to achieve my dreams.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Is Your Email Obsession Something Bigger?

This week, I've been writing about the scourge of email obsession and how to cope. I'd like to bring this around today to the bigger picture.

That is, procrastination.

I've written about this before but I want to spend more time on it because it's a big part of losing your serenity at work: You delay delay delay, you focus on what you can't control instead of what you can, and you end up feeling powerless, victimized and frustrated with yourself.

For a brutally honest look at this condition, let's check in with Psychology Today. In a 2003 story, the magazine looks at 10 facts about procrastination. The most interesting for the purpose of this post is this one:

Procrastinators actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don't take a lot of commitment on their part. Checking e-mail is almost perfect for this purpose. They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure.

Ouch. And true.

The magazine goes on to identify three flavors of procrastinator:
* arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
* avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
* decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

Any of these sound familiar to you?

It makes sense: Want to avoid big, hard feeling? Feeling particularly vulnerable or insecure about your capacity to make it as a self-employed person? If you have even a little bit of an impulse towards self-sabotage (and who doesn't, at one time or another?), spending all your time answering email or sending email instead of dealing with your underlying fears is a great way to do it.

I don't say any of this to be shaming or judgmental. I love writing this blog but there are plenty of other things I could be doing with my business hours. And I love the email as much as anyone else. I say this to underline the fact that clarity about your motives for doing things that you don't like about yourself at work goes a long way toward deactivating them.

So spend some time today just observing and becoming mindful of where you procrastinate and what feelings are underneath it. As a friend of mine says, "It's not about the email." So if it's not about the email for you, what is it about?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Serenity Tip: Email Time

So yesterday we talked about why email might be blocking your serenity.

Today, let's talk about one way to put email in its place.

There's a new entry in my daily to-do list. This one says: "Email."

Here's how it works:

Every morning around 9 a.m., I got through the emails from yesterday and today (and, since I have a backlog of lots of emails, a week's worth of ancient emails). It's like de-cluttering:

* Look at every single email.
* Ask yourself: Do I need this? Do I need to respond to this? Can I throw it away?
* Respond to it/delete it/file it right away.

In doing this, I found old emails from prospective clients sitting in my inbox to which I could reply and remind them of my presence, filed away emails from old sources and remembered the marketing pitches that I needed to reslant and resend.

And, by the end of the half-hour, I didn't have any niggling emails hanging over my head: No guilt about unreturned emails, forgotten requests, etc. It freed me from constantly checking my email because I knew everything had been dealt with. And with that sense came the belief that I could even close my email program for a few hours and get work done.

Talk about serenity!

Has this worked for you? What are your other email troubles?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Serenity Enemy: Email Encroachment

Every so often, I get questions on ways to make work life more serene. Have one? Send it to heather (at)

Today's question is:

My chronic work problem as a self-employed writer is compulsively reading and responding to emails like this. If that sounds snide, the snideness is directed at me and at no one else!

I hear you. As I've said before, I definitely know the allure of the email siren song. There's something so gratifying about the ding!, isn't there?

Tomorrow, I'll write about a new management technique that's allowed me to feel less beholden to my email. But before I share it, I think it's important to talk about motivation--that is, why are you obsessed with your email? Ask yourself:

* What should I be doing instead?
* Do I want to do it?
* What are my feelings about my assigned task?
* What am I afraid of?
* What am I ashamed of?
* What do I really want to be doing?

Email procrastination can arise from a number of sources, and to figure out how to squelch this serenity enemy, you have to know what yours is. Some of the reasons I hang on every single email are because I don't have enough information to start writing, I want to go to the gym but I feel guilty for leaving work, I'm stressed about money, I'm resentful or deflated that a marketing effort got rebuffed.

Each of these requires a different treatment. It may be that going to the gym will actually make me more productive than sitting at the computer and trying to talk myself out of going to the gym. It may be that I need to get honest aobut why I can't write and figure out who else I need to call. It may be that I need to call a work support person and get consoled about my flagging marketing efforts. Maybe I need to make a to-do list so I feel less overwhelmed. Maybe I need to look at my expectations of myself and see if I'm being too rigid.

But before I can do any of that, I have to be willing to tear myself away from my email and figure out what it is. Sometimes, it's easier to sit with email--and feel bad about it--than it is to face the thing you're avoiding. Indeed, email procrastination may be an attempt to avoid dealing with my 1 percent.

Think about that and tomorrow I'll bring you a few tips.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Serenity Tools: The Sounds of Serenity

Until I became self-employed, the sounds around me were irrrelevant. I had no control over them so mostly ignored them. It wasn't until I was in a quiet room that I realized the constant screaming across the newsroom, the static-y police scanner and the hum of the computer did nothing but make me tense. Add to that my general propensity at the time to overwork and not set boundaries and what you had was the sound of stress.

So I wondered: How can you create the sound of serenity in your office?

There's actual research behind this. For nurses, for instance, researchers have found that abnormal sound levels contribute to stress and may even impede healing in the sick.

Another study found that the opposite may also be true: Pleasant sounds may mimic positive experiences:

We suggest that music specifically induces an emotional response similar to a pleasant experience or happiness. Moreover, we demonstrated the typical asymmetrical pattern of stress responses in upper temporal cortex areas, and suggested that happiness/sadness emotional processing might be related to stress reduction by music.

Having said that, I'm not much of a classical music gal. I much more favor wacky girl rock or emo rock on a regular basis. But when I have to work, none of that is very helpful. And one of the joys of self-employment is the ability to listen to music while I work.

So here is some music that helps me concentrate, get today's work done and remain calm:

Essential Beethoven
The Essential Tchaikovsky
Relaxing Vibes, Slavic Kulpowicz

What music gets you in a productive frame of mind?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Preparing Yourself for a Hard Week

We all have them: We're staring down the barrel of a stressful, productivity-required week. What do you do?

* A massive to-do list?
* A flowchart of when to do everything?
* Plan on working nights and weekends until the stress is over?

Those are all good options, as they give you clarity about what's in front of you to do. But it's also the time to invite your Higher Power (whatever that looks like) into the situation. If you don't believe in one, consider your support network your higher power. The point is not to walk into the dark forest of your fears and stress alone.

Just like recovering from overwhelm, planning for a busy week can leave you feeling not good enough and compulsively overworking with the hope that that will solve your problems.

Hey, I've been there. As the charter member of of the workaholic's club, I've had more than a few obsessive weeks where I've done nothing but work and gone to sleep panicky and had bad dreams full of what I forgot to do.

Today, happily, we all have more choices. Ask yourself the following:

* What is absolutely necessary today?
* What's ONE thing I can do today to make tomorrow go smoother? (Limit yourself to one or two things. Making a list of 10 means you're trying to do today's work and tomorrow's work at the same time. It doesn't work.)
* What's one thing you can do to take care of yourself today so that you're calmer tomorrow?
* What will your work hours be today? Set them and then stick to them, except in an emergency (and by emergency I don't mean that worried feeling you have. I mean an emergency that's be verified as such by someone objective).
* What do you need to ask for help on?
* Where can you get this help?

Start your day with these simple questions and you'll be more likely to finish the day happy. I always try to remember this objective:

By the end of the week, the work will be done one way or another; how much do you want to suffer in the process?

This is a shift in thinking: It isn't just about the product; it's about the process. One of my favorite lines in the wonderful book Eat Pray Love comes from the Balinese medicine man. When asked to describe Hell and Heaven, he explains that both end up in the same spot; it's just that you go through hell to get to it or you go through bliss to get to it.

The choice is up to you, to some extent. You can't control others, but you can control how you treat yourself and others in the meantime.