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The Freelance Life: Leaving the Home Office for the Real Office

When I was first offered the position, a long-term freelance gig writing health-related content for a big-name Manhattan institution, I hesitated. A steady paycheck would be nirvana but could I handle this one daunting specification? “Writers are required to attend in-person weekly staff meetings,” among other on-site requirements.

On-site? You mean out of the “comfort” of my office, by which I mean the small table I sit at, alone, in my bedroom? And I’d have to be somewhere at a certain time — 9 AM Mondays, to be exact . This would add a whole new layer to my morning routine, something called “caring what the hell I look like when I leave the house.”

After much deliberation I decided, after nine years of working from home, that it would be good for me to break out of my hermit-like routine and get out amongst the people. Today was the first day in the office, and from the minute I walked out the door I realized why people get that jealous look in their eyes when I tell them I work from home.

The shocks, surprises and reminders came in rapid succession. All are manageable, but only if you are prepared for them. So here are 13 tips to help you transition from home office to the  corporate life

  1. You need to wear shoes. And you have to keep them on all day. This is non-negotiable. As such, you will have to walk in shoes. Possibly for long distances. This will be an affront to your soft, widened-over-time feet. So throw a Band-aid in your bag. If you decide to wear heels, pack a whole box
  2. How you smell now matters. And you definitely want to do something about that hair (keeping in mind that borrowing your daughter’s scrunchie is fashion suicide, and that “fashion suicide” is a thing you should care about). Lipstick is a good idea too.
  3. Decide which of your two “Suitable for the Workplace” outfits you will wear. Hint: The wool suit will kill you in any month between May and October. And make sure the day’s high is over 70 before daring to bare your legs. Also, it might be time to stop being so cheap and spend some cash on work duds.
  4. You have little control over your commute. You’re used to your “drive time” taking as long as it takes to walk from your bed to your desk. Now, however, you are at the mercy of forces you cannot control: mass transit and/or traffic. So even if you leave 15 minutes early, as I did, expect you will be late, as I was. Instead, on your first day, leave an hour early so you can accurately figure out how long your commute really will take.
  5. You’re a worker now! It’s rush hour, and at some point you’ll find yourself one in the mass of people moving in one direction, filtering into various office buildings. Your pace will naturally join that of the crowd. You’ll look around and soak it in — the energy, the sense of purpose — and feel energized. (You’ll also spy the young women in flip-flops and have an “aha!” moment.)
  6. The assumption is you’re a possible terrorist. Enter most New York City office buildings and you’ll be stopped before you hit the elevators. You have to sign in. You might have to show ID. You might even have your bag searched. If you haven’t worked corporate since before 9\11, as I haven’t, this will be a somewhat creepy shock. The world has gone crazy, and in doing so has added an extra 10 minutes to your commute.
  7. Social Media is no longer considered “work.” Once you arrive for your on-site work day, you cannot fall into your normal routine. Meaning, you cannot spend the first hour scanning Facebook and Twitter, not even under the guise that “being socially aware is key to my marketing strategy.” All the client would see is a contractor who is completely ignoring them, while on their dime. Not smart.
  8. Meetings! They will remind you of why you left the corporate workforce. When you’re used to working alone, and working fast, sitting in a room with 12 people staring at a Powerpoint makes “Freelance You” think: “What a waste of time. This is killing my hourly rate!” But here’s the bonus: Like a real job, you’re now being paid to just sit there. So relax back in that swivel chair. And chuckle over the fact that you’re being paid to sit. But then remember to…
  9. Stay awake! Loud, gaping yawns are a statement unto themselves. Learn to stifle them.
  10. You’re on another schedule now. If it’s 10:30 and you’re hungry for lunch, suck it up. Your kid waits for lunch period at school, and you’ll do the same in the workplace. Same goes with quitting time. You leave when everyone else leaves. This will drive you insane at first, this lack of control over your own time. But remember: Steady Paycheck.
  11. “Lunch” is a thing. It’s a specific portion of your day, devoted solely to taking a break and grabbing a bite. It’s something you do separate from working. You might even leave the building, go shopping and eat something you did not prepare. And it might be really yummy.
  12. The unmentionables. You cannot do any of the gross things you do while sitting alone in your home office. You know what I’m talking about. Figure out how to manage it.
  13. Which leads to… You will have to use a public restroom, which is a reminder of the most overlooked perk of working from home: a private loo. Consider this when deciding how much fiber to have in your breakfast and how many cups of coffee to consume.

But even after all of these shockers, my day in corporate America was an invigorating experience. Bouncing ideas off of others, hearing others voice their experiences — it’s a third dimension that is all-too-often lacking in most solopreneur enterprises. So if you have the opportunity, get out of the office. Only do it in a pair of comfortable shoes.

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What Happened When I Gave up Agita for Lent

Earlier this month, I put serious thought into what I should give up for Lent. Chocolate? Wine? Social Media? Discussions about the topic end up sounding like a parlor game. Wine? Are you mad? Aren’t you afraid you’ll wind up strangling your husband instead? or Do you think Jesus really cares whether you eat chocolate, and do you think that’s what he was pining for during those 40 days in the desert? Ha ha, religious humor.

I participate in Lent mostly because I like the idea of spending roughly 40 days focused on spiritual self-improvement. Giving up wine or chocolate or even Facebook might make me a different person — grumpier, perhaps? — but does it really have the power to change me in a lasting way? My answer is no.

So instead, I decided to give up agita for Lent. Now, for those of you unfortunate enough to grow up outside of New York City, you might wonder — what the hell is she talking about? Agita is this fantastic word, of Italian origin, that describes that nervous anxious feeling you get in your gut whenever you think about something that scares you or deal with something stressful. For example: Ugh, watching my kids on the monkey bars gives me such agita. Or: I just did my taxes, and I thought I’d die from the agita. Great word; feel free to use it liberally (pronounced a-ji-DA.)

So whenever I woke up at 3 a.m. wondering: ACK! Where is that Malaysian plane and is it being weaponized by terrorists who have a nuclear bomb? (yes, I did that) I stopped, slowed down my brain and reminded myself that no, I gave up agita for Lent. So I’m not worrying about stupid crap anymore.

But here’s the thing about life. Try to improve yourself, and you will be tested. Aim to lose weight? Of course that’s when your sister will come to the house with homemade cupcakes. Want to swear less? That’s when you’ll slam your finger in the car door. Trust me, and think about  it, and you’ll know — whenever you try to pick yourself up something will try to knock you down.

So here’s what happened once I decided to give up agita:

  • My most-regular, reliable client had its editorial budget slashed which meant bye-bye regular, reliable income.
  • My CPA called to say that I owe three times what I expected to owe on my taxes. (A total amount that does not correlate with the amount of cash we currently have.)

Now here’s the genius of this: As a self-employed freelance-writer, money in and money out is my biggest worry. So of course, this is what would be thrown at me. AGITA! Right? Except, remember, I gave that up for Lent so…

Whenever I became gripped with panic over the money thing I reminded myself — you’re not going to go there. I didn’t let my heart race. My stomach was forbidden from either churning nor gurgling. I inhaled, I exhaled and I just Let It Go. I decided that if history is any guide, the amount of energy I have expended worrying about my income has, in the end, always been a complete waste. Because things always seem to work out. Why? Not because I buy a winning scratch-off or find myself a Sugar Daddy but rather because I GET SHIT DONE.

And this is the epiphany of being 40. Lose a client? Guess what, I made up those lost sales and then some and will end this first quarter having surpassed my sales goals. The tax man is after me? Eh, I’ll set up a payment plan. The feds be paid when they get paid. Every problem has a solution that does not at all involve my breaking into a cold sweat at 3 a.m.

This all boils down to know-how and confidence. If I believe more in myself, I’m able to keep agita at bay. And if I accept what I can control (finding clients) and what I can’t (finding that airplane), then the scope of what I should worry about and shouldn’t changes dramatically.

Am I saying I’m never going to worry about anything ever again? That’s just not my nature. Of course I’m going to worry. But I hope I can carry with me this Lenten lesson that focusing on solutions, rather than the enormity of the problem, is both empowering and sleep-inducing.

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Who is Your Work Spouse?

This morning I had a Skype meeting with one of my favorite fellow freelance writers, Emma Johnson of www.wealthysinglemommy.com. We decided late last year that we would kick off 2014 by motivating each other toward our work-related goals. We both hope to build out platforms and create information products based on our areas of expertise. We have a shared goal: Turn journalism on its head by cutting out the middleman (i.e. publishers) and delivering useful and enriching content directly to readers.

We just ended our call and I am jazzed. Pumped! Excited for the new year! This is a mindset I couldn’t have forced myself into. We all need teammates who will help motivate us toward victory, but I think this is especially true for freelance writers or anyone who works solo. Sitting here in silence, the only sound that of the clicking keyboard, allows our minds too much time to wander into the “what ifs” that can spell professional doom. I have an idea, but what if it isn’t marketable? What if I can’t pull it off? What if I’m not as good as I believe I am? What if I fail?

When you have a goal buddy, it is her job to be the naysayer to your negativity. When you’re feeling low or defeated, you send her an email or IM and she coaches you back into the ring. When you are stumped with how to proceed with a project, she will undoubtedly have fresh ideas. And when you just need to vent your frustration, she’ll say, “I get it. I really do.”

For all these reasons I’ve referred to Emma as my “work wife” — the person you partner with, vent to and lean on during tough times. Having a work spouse can help make self-employment bearable for the long term. So if you don’t have one, find one. Emma and I met through other writer friends I know through our professional organization, the American Society of Journalists and Authors. For some reason we clicked right away. I can’t explain why as writers can be a quirky bunch (myself included). But I’ve learned that when it comes to friendships, when you find someone who meshes with your worldview, laughs at your jokes and deals with your moodiness, grab on and hold on.  And Emma meshes, laughs and deals.

I’ll end this by dedicating this post to my work wife and wishing her all the success she hopes for in 2014 (and that it comes much faster than you’ve charted out in your business plan).

 

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What a Year!

In June, my editor Dina El Nabli and I accepted a Gracie award for a series we worked together on for iVillage.

In June, my editor Dina El Nabli and I accepted a Gracie award for a series we worked together on for iVillage.

This year, I learned an important lesson about being self-employed. If you lack inertia, your business will as well. And everything you worked so hard to build up can easily come apart.

This year was our post-Sandy rebuilding year. I had to juggle running my business with raising my family, my usual level of crazy. But I also had to add in haggling with insurance companies, making endless decisions about paint colors and cabinet finishes and facing the regular interruptions from my contractor wondering “Do you want this here?” and “We have a problem.” All while running that business from a corner of my bedroom/living room/dining room/storage facility.

The close-quarters threatened to gnaw away at the little bit of sanity I had been able to maintain. The only TV in the house sat inches away from my work desk. So I learned to improvise. I’d tell the kids, “Mommy is going to work now,” put on my headphones and use music to drown out the sound of scheming Phineas and Ferb and arguing Mira and Miles (my kids). When we got bad news from our insurance company (which happened again and again) I had to figure out how to tamp down that fear and anger so I could focus on the next interview I had to do for work or article I had to write. There were so many days when a work-related deadline seemed poised to be the straw to my camel’s back.

“Never have I ever wished so much that I didn’t have to work,” I remember telling my sister.

But the reality was that never in my life was my working and earning an income so important. Insurance only covered about two-thirds of our rebuilding cost. The rest came from our own pockets. And here’s the thing: Because I’m a self-employed freelance writer, if I am not producing I am not earning. There are no paid sick days or personal leave. There’s no one else to cover for me when I need to spend the day researching the best flooring options or finding yet more documents for the insurance claim. Were it not for the editors who continued to believe in me and who, I suspect, occasionally threw me projects as a way to keep me working and earning, I shudder to think how things would have turned out for us.

While I am self-employed and work in my own bubble, I am not alone. I have cultivated a world of support and respect outside of my office desk. This might sound obvious if you go to an office everyday but for those of us who work independently, we often lack even the most basic feedback about our work. To feel connected to workplaces outside my own was a salve. Clients sent me gift cards. Editors I hadn’t worked with in months checked in with me to see how we had fared. They followed my journey on my blog, 365to40, and occasionally bought one of those posts to put on their own websites. When I fell short of meeting a deadline in those first weeks after the storm, when our house was unlivable, they didn’t let me add that to my list of worries.

I realized that after nine years of running my own business, I have figured out how to keep it afloat in good times and bad. And that has instilled a level of confidence that will propel me toward new ventures in 2014 (stay tuned!)

So as I end this work year, I’d like to thank all of you I’ve had the privilege of working with over the last year. Thank you for your understanding and your belief that despite the insanity in my life, I could still get the job done. Sandy taught me that being connected to a community is one of the best ways to survive the darkest days. Thank you for letting me be a part of yours.

 


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