Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Serenity Tip: PITA tax

I recently finished writing up a story for Yahoo! Hot Jobs on bullying bosses. For it, I had the pleasure of talking to Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule. Let me assure you that he is not an asshole. In fact, he's a peach--a peach with a foul mouth, but a peach nonetheless.

Here's what I'd like to share with you:

Ditch toxic clients

It's not a revolutionary piece of advice, but it can be a revolutionary activity, especially when we fear for our economic security in the market's downturns. But what Sutton explained to me was that there's never a good time to work for a "certified flaming asshole"--the kind of boss who doesn't respect your time, your talent or your humanity.

If you suspect your client may be a pain in the ass (PITA), consider these three steps:

1) Become AWARE of their asshole status.
Take Sutton's Client from Hell quiz.

2) ACCEPT that they are the asshole, not you.
Chances are that you've been pulling every professional tool in your toolkit out to win this client over and get them to treat you with respect. But what you're really doing is sapping your serenity by trying to control something that's way out of your control. If someone is just a jerk, that's not something that any amount of professional courtesy or spectacular work can cure.

Once you can really accept that, it's easier to do the final step:

3) Take ACTION.
Action doesn't have to mean firing the client--but I could and maybe it should. If that feels too extreme to you, do some thinking: How much would your client have to pay you to compensate for the abuse you're taking?

Need helpl figuring it out? Look at your client mix and crunch some numbers:

* How much time does this client take, both in terms of hours worked and minutes spent answering follow-ups, traveling to your client's office, number of phone calls, etc.

* How much time does this client take in terms of the amount of time you spend debriefing with your support network and thinking about this client? Those are hours you could be spending marketing yourself and working on other paying assignments.

* How much time do you spend on personal time thinking about this client, resenting this client and being mad at yourself for not being able to convince him or her that you are a trustworthy, professional worker?

Now, add up those hours and multiply it by your hourly rate.

That's your client's PITA tax. You can up it by general emotional pain and suffering if you want.

But you can also contact your client and tell them that you've revised your business plan and that your new rate for them will be $XXX.

Of course, the best option is probably to dump the client--and seeing how much time that client takes up in your work and personal time may give you the willingness to let go of them forever.

I've had clients like this, of course. My main approach with them was to market like crazy to find other clients that could replace them. I also did a lot of writing, talking and praying to be relieved of the obsession with this client and the feeling that I needed them. I also had to remember that I need to put my faith not in that client but in my Higher Power to give me the career and fulfillment I was looking for.

Recently, I watched as a freelance friend went through this process. Today, I was gratified to get an email from her saying that she has finally cut the client loose. I said to her, and I'll say to you, that it's been my experience that letting go of those clients will give her so much extra energy that her career will grow because of it.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Serenity Tip: Be Honest

I often write about sharing your concerns with safe people--other people in your field with whom you feel comfortable and from whom you experience no ridicule, etc.

But let's be honest: When you're at your reunion, honesty is not the forefront of your mind. I would like to suggest, however, that being honest with your colleagues there can also be wonderful.

This year marks 11 since I graduated from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I know, fancy. To be honest, I've always been a little embarrassed about it. We all joked at the time that we were waiting for the admissions department to drop the bomb: "Oh I'm sorry, we meant to admit Heather Boemer, not Heather Boerner. This nice security guard will escort you out." And when you tell other writers that you went there, they tend to look at you like you're hopelessly pretentious.

So when I went to my 10-year reunion last year, I went with my insecurity in-hand. As a relatively new freelancer, I was taking whatever work I could get. That meant that I snuck into the computer lab there as the students were finishing up their investigative journalism master's projects as I pounded out a 10-page advertorial on... flooring.

Not my most shining moment. And I was pretty ashamed, to be honest. It's not what I thought I'd be doing.

So I was very guarded with my colleagues. I was prepared to tell them just the highlights--"I got my first article with Yoga Journal! I wrote for my first national magazine last year! I write for the San Francisco Chronicle!"--and not the reality.

Something has shifted. I've been emailing with a colleague who writes regularly for the New York Times Science Times about the paper. The shift happened last week when, after I sent that a query to that frightening publication, I asked her, "Were you intimidated? Because I'm scared!"

I know it sounds small, but it changed me, almost molecularly. To be honest with someone I admire, who has the career I want, was scary. When I didn't hear from her for a few days, I was convinced she was sitting in her New York apartment laughing at me.

Then, this week, I got an email relieving me of that delusion. She'd been sick. She told me the story of her first piece for them and how she kept writing for them.

I gave her a chance to be human--and, more importantly, I gave myself a chance to be human. It brought me more peace. It increased my serenity. It brought me relief from my own nagging doubt that I can include myself in her ranks. It's great to not have to pretend.

So for this weekend and for today, I ask you to let someone in to your process, to give up the brave front and be a little more human.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What's Your Treat?

I'm a firm believer in staying in my body. Imperfect as it is, it serves me well, and when I'm connected to it, I have a better chance of maintaining my serenity. It's when i get in my head and start spinning that I forget what I can control and what I can't, and my serenity flies away.

So when I give myself treats, they aren't of the chocolate-and-a-glass-of-wine variety. For me, that stuff just takes me out of my body. And I've found better ways to treat myself without having to leave my body.

Here are my treats:

* Organizing. I know, I'm a freak. Lately, I've been rewarding myself for hard work by scanning in old documents. Yesterday, that means scanning in copies of my old articles from my last full-time newspaper job. It was fun to read through them, see the good work I did and notice how my craft has progressed. I know what I would do differently with my work now.
* A Bath. Dump half a bag of Epsom salts into hot water, line the tub with a few candles and click on the podcasts for This American Life, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me! or Fresh Air and luxuriate for a half an hour.
* Music. At my last full time job, I was chastised for wearing headphones. But one of the joys of self-employment is that I can listen to music as I write this. My current favorites? For people of my generation and particular persuasion, Rhino's Brit Box is like a warm bath and a walk down musical memory lane in one (I mean, come on! Trash Can Sinatras and Inspiral Carpets together? Oh, Rhino, how I love you). Can You Dig It? The Seventies Soul Experience is nothing but goodness. Talk about injecting a little joy into your work day!
* Exercise. Nothing like getting out of my office and breaking a sweat to relieve tension, calm my nerves and boost my mood.
* Friends. Sometimes I do something hard and then call or email a friend--either in my field or not--to share the triumph, the struggle, etc. for a few minutes. Or, even better, lunch or tea.
* Meditation. This is the ultimate get-in-your-body relaxation treat. Even if it's for one minute at my desk, a mini-break is great.

Now, I'm sure you have your own--chocolate or wine included, likely--but here's my question for you: Do you do it?

This is one of those tips you see in women's magazines all the time: Take some "me time." It can feel like a command or threat. My wish for you is that your approach to your treats is gentle. The truth is, we all need rewards for stepping outside our comfort zones. Not giving ourselves them just burns us out quicker.

So if you have a hard time tearying yourself away, think about what your rewards are and what would feel best. It could be that for you, working on a new project is the reward. No reason your reward needs to be mine.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Spring Cleaning Update: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

I try never to suggest things to you that I wouldn't do myself. So when I suggested last week that you start your spring cleaning in your office, I intended to follow through myself. And I have. Today's progress:

Recycle Old Computer: check

Can I just tell you how lucky I am to have Green Citizen in my neighborhood? I drove up, the staff took the computer out of the back of the car, I paid to have the hard drive erased, and sped off. It couldn't have taken more than 10 minutes.

And now I know where I can recycle all those old ink cartridges.

Scan and Shred Old Docs: in progress

Tonight, I got motivated. Heaven knows why, but I pulled out all the files of clients I haven't written for in the past year or whom I'm fairly certain I won't be working in the future. Then I put my all-in-one's scanner to the test.

Two hours later and I have scanned in all those files and I have to say--I'm addicted. I started looking at all the other files I've kept around for years--old medical files, tax files from 2002, files for credit cards I haven't used in years--and imagined the space I could have. I wouldn't need all three of these file cabinets I have now. I could be better organized.

I have to admit, I've been reading UnClutterer's posts on the paperless office with a great deal of skepticism. I think it goes back to my newspaper background. I like to hold and touch my papers. It is comforting and more real somehow.

But c'mon. There's a limit.

And that limit is three filing cabinets in a small office at 33 years old. I can't imagine what it will look like in a year, let alone 10 or 15 years.

And now that I have my handy-dandy backup drive I don't have to.

What does this mean for my serenity? It's a little early to tell. Right now it means that there's physical room in my filing cabinet for new client folders. I know it's New Agey, but there's something important to me about making room for more work, even in my filing cabinet.

And I'm looking forward to making more.

How's your spring cleaning coming?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Monday's Mantra: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Let's all take a pledge to start the week off on uncomfortable footing. This week's mantra is:

Yay! I feel like coming out of my skin!

In his great blog The More Clients Blog, Robert Middleton makes an excellent point about marketing inside your comfort zone. That is:

Although it seems strange, I've observed that people would much rather do something inside their comfort zone, even if it doesn't work, than to do something outside of their comfort zone, even though it would be much more effective.

Our comfort zones shape our actions. Comfort zones are a set of beliefs and practices that are, well, comfortable. There is no possibility of a breakthrough inside your comfort zone.

Well said. Have a dream client you're afraid to query because you fear the rejection will crush your soul? It seems to me the bigger threat is not an eventual rejection--after all that could give you good justification to head back to that ineffective comfort zone--but actually the feeling of discomfort and that sense of peril that comes when you start to act outside your comfort zone.

I know the feeling well. As I mentioned last week, I was preparing to send a query to a dream market.

Well, I did it.

And they're considering it.

My head hasn't yet caved in, but boy do I want to come out of my skin. If I were a drinking girl, I would have spent the weekend in a drunken stupor. As it was, I had to resist eating everything in my house. It does not feel good. But as Middleton points out, we shouldn't confuse discomfort with error or mishap. This is how it's supposed to feel. If it felt good, I wouldn't be pushing myself.

So choose something you've been avoiding out of fear of discomfort, rally your support system, and get to work on it this week.

I wanna see you sweat over it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Meditation for Letting Go

I'm preparing to send a query this morning to a dream market. For the writers in the audience, the feeling associated with such a task is well known: The panic beforehand, the self-doubt, the obsessive thinking about it (whether it's loving the idea or fearing the response). For non-writers, it's the same as targeting some marketing at a big fish. You feel that it could change your life.

OK, now send the marketing and let it go.

.... Right.

Knowing that today is the day, I started the day with some writing:

* What am I afraid of when I think of sending the query?
* What's also true?

What I found was that I was telling myself all kinds of negative things about my talents and skills--that I shouldn't bother because it won't work anyway. And then I reminded myself of a few key truths:

* I'm powerless over my clients' workflow, cashflow, and other priorities--including whether my story works for them or not.
* Fear is normal before stepping outside your comfort zone.

And then I settled in for morning meditation. Here's the meditation I do every morning, and can be applied to anything in your life--but is especially important when you're getting ready to do marketing:

1. Settle in to your spot. Take several deep breaths, close your eyes and focus your thoughts on the middle distance, the cloudy fantasy world behind your eyes.

2. Now imagine yourself standing someplace serene and open your arms out to the side.

3. Think of the things you need to let go of: This can be the query, that fight you had with your mother-in-law or partner, your ego about another pitch getting rejected. But what I did this morning was envision my query--a single sheet of paper--unfurling from my center (the gut, or solar-plexus chakra, house of your power), unraveling up my chest, down my arm and away from my hand.

4. Keep breathing. As you let it go, take a deep exhale.

5. Imagine it now floating away. Feel what it feels like for it to leave you and for you to have no more control over it. Whatever panic, fear, etc., that comes up, notice it. But let that go, too--as if it were the strings hanging from a kite.

6. Take more deep breaths and keep imagining it till your anxiety response lessens and disappears.

7. Focus on that disappearing query with your mind's eye and fill it with love. Wish it well on its journey.

8. Imagine an unseen force scooping it up and taking it away. It belongs to your higher power now. Let it go. It's being taken care of.

Rinse and repeat. In other words, you may need to do this for up to two weeks before it takes. Letting go is a process not an event. Keep working at it--and then come up with alternative markets for your query, prepare it to go should your dream market foolishly pass on it, and talk talk talk to colleagues about it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Serenity Tip: Spring cleaning

First, an apology. What can I say? I got bogged down with work. And if I've learned anything from tracking my time, it's that prioritizing is important. So I prioritized other things. But I've been thinking about this blog this whole time.

So! Now for the fun part:

Do you need to do some spring cleaning?

You may be asking, How is this fun?

Well, I've written here before about how clutter can steal your serenity before. Here are the two main ways:

* By clouding your clarity about your work (Where's that article I printed out again? Where are my notes? I know I wrote that person's phone number down somewhere...)
* By potentially helping you lose bills and get behind in payments. As we all know, money stress will beat the serenity out of us every time.

It's all about focusing on what you can't control instead of what you can.

So try these steps for your business spring cleaning:

* Scan in old contracts and important documents from previous clients.
* SHRED those papers and recycle the file folders for future use.
* Go through old files and make a list of potential story ideas (if you're a freelance writer, like me) or potential new markets for your business.
* Save what you need from those old papers (anything that will be useful in future marketing) and recycle or shred the rest.
* Move tax documents from 2004 and before into files marked "Destroy on XXXX." Those XXXs represent five years after the tax year. That's, I believe, the statute of limitations on audits.
* OR, scan all your tax docs into your computer and shred the papers.

And finally:

* BACK UP all those newly scanned files. Once they're on your external drive, you can delete them from your computer's hard drive to save space.

You can also use this time to go through all old material:

* Do you really need all those books you bought over the past five years? Some are probably for issues or technology that's obsolete.
* Do you have office furniture that's broken and stashed in the corner? Look up your local hauling company or list the stuff on FreeCycle.
* Sell the stuff that's good enough to sell.
* If you've replaced computer equipment in the past year, chances are you have an old CRT monitor laying around. In many areas you can recycle those, too.

Have I inspired you? What's one thing you can do to toss out the old this spring?