When Nothing Happens

Not too long ago, a friend told me, “I think I just stared at a wall for the entire month of June.” It happens to me with unnerving frequency – there’s plenty to do, but for some reason it just isn’t getting done. Maybe you make a nice list of things you need to work on, but then wash dishes or read books or play games or talk on the phone instead. I think that these periods are normal, and sometimes necessary. But, if they involve your income, they are also terrifying.

Four or five months ago, I decided to diversify some of my client base. Since I started writing, I’ve worked almost exclusively with small businesses, and nearly everything I’ve written aside from posts on this blog has been ghostwriting work. I love working with entrepreneurs, but wanted to develop some different skills, and so I’ve been learning about writing for trade publications and contacting lots of editors and sending out query ideas. I diligently contacted a certain number of editors each week (never quite as many as I planned to) and then…just stopped.

Beginning two or three weeks ago, I just couldn’t seem to get anything at all done. Articles that had already been assigned sat on my to do list forlornly waiting for attention. Calls that needed to be made kept the articles

Late summer outside, but winter in my mind.

company. I watched my bank account dwindle and thought about all the projects in my idea file but didn’t make a move toward working on them. It felt like the air was weighted and my mind was slowly blanking out. It would be nice to say my mind was adjusting to the transition or something, but I’m not sure enough to make that claim.

Then, this week, the turn-around began. I completed a large part of a book project (I can’t wait to tell you about it!), got several assignments from those editors I’ve been contacting, posted my first author interview post, emailed three other authors to line up more interviews, and finally started working on those articles that were still sitting on my list. Just like that, things started clicking again.

So here are the things I did during that dead time that might have helped things start clicking again:

  • Continued making daily and weekly goal lists. Even if the things on them didn’t get done, I kept making the lists so that I at least knew what needed to get completed.
  • Had weekly calls with a writing buddy, or friend, or mentor. I’m not sure how to classify this wonderful person, but I do know that talking with her makes my brain churn every week and that she helps me figure out what to do and is totally willing to share what she is doing.
  • Exercised and cleaned. My goals fall into three general categories: professional, health, and home. Pretty much any goal I’ve set for the last four or five years (maybe longer) fits into one of those categories. The times when I feel as if there is no progress happening in any of them are dark times indeed. So, when I’m not getting my work done, I try extra hard to make sure I exercise enough. When I’m feeling stuck fitness-wise, I try to make sure my house is clean.
  • Made notes as things crossed my mind. Even though nothing was really getting done, once in awhile I had an idea or vague thought and I wrote those down somewhere, knowing that more productive days would come again.

Do you experience these kinds of low periods? What do you do when you just can’t get anything done? Do you think it is better to just “ride it out” or is it better to push through these kinds of slumps?

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How To Keep Working When Tragedy Touches You

Have you seen the documentary Alone in the Wilderness? Sometimes, I wish that I had the skills and knowledge to live like Dick Proenneke. Living completely alone would eliminate so much of the angst and pain that we are faced with almost everyday. Of course, it would eliminate the joys that we can offer one another, too. Being a member of society, or even just a member of a family, means experiencing moments of the most amazing elation, but also the darkest despair. Recently my life was touched by a tragedy. It’s not my story to tell, so I will not share the details here, but I will say that it has been one of the most difficult situations I’ve ever faced.

People get sick. People get hurt. People die. Spouses leave, children suffer, and all manner of other awful things happen. When presented with something terrible, huge, and life-altering we have to figure out how to keep doing the mundane, day-to-day things. When simply remembering to eat becomes a challenge, then doing something as complex as running a business or fulfilling the necessary duties of your job become Herculean tasks.

Yet, the bills must still get paid.

How do you keep working when you cannot concentrate on anything? How do you continue to function in a professional manner when you don’t even want to bathe?

First, it’s important to be prepared for a bad situation before it happens. Like having a small savings account, putting a few safeguards in place can save your business if you are faced with the worst. I’m not talking so much about money, as about processes and systems. When your mind is scattered, it is easier to lose things, or forget to do things. If you have solid systems in place, you have a little less to remember. Taking a just a bit of time when things are normal to get some automated systems set up really pays off when your world turns upside down.

Last tax season, my wonderful accountant recommended Wave Accounting. It’s a free service, and it’s great – unlike many free services, even the support is good. Although I’m sure I’m not using it exactly correctly, Wave sure has made my invoicing and income and expenditure tracking processes easier. My Wave account links to my business checking account, which simplifies things even more.

Knowing that I didn’t need to worry about accounting during the last three weeks has been good. That kind of stuff is too sensitive to do when you know your mind isn’t working quite right.

Another thing that I learned through this recent bad time was that you should carefully choose who you talk to about your personal stuff. When you are overwhelmed by tragedy, it’s hard to not tell people what is happening. It fills you up and dominates everything. Most of my clients are quite close – I probably take the whole “relationship marketing” thing too far. It definitely would have been hard to avoid telling at least a couple of them what was happening because they would have sensed some weirdness, or maybe even perceived me as being rude.

Interestingly, I found that it was uncomfortable, and I wished that I had not shared. Talking to the people who did not know was a relief. There was no need to discuss it, and so those conversations provided some respite. After the first terrible few days, I found that sitting down and doing research actually helped calm my mind and served as a sort of mini-mental-vacation. If I had very pressing deadlines, though, I don’t think that would have been the case. I try to work mostly with clients who are not rushed, and that was a huge benefit in dealing with personal upheaval.

Enormous events impact every part of your life. During the last two-three weeks, I didn’t work consistently, eat properly, or exercise. The house got messy and the garden was neglected. In other words the things that keep my life (and my personality) balanced and sane didn’t happen.  Making yourself do normal things is a good reminder that, no matter what bad things are happening, the world is still there, and time is still passing. Depending on your situation, it may feel as if the world has shifted and things shouldn’t be as they always have been. Sometimes it feels like there should have been some sort of fundamental change, like the pull of gravity has doubled or like the sun’s rays have diminished in intensity.

Knowing that is not the case can be either comforting or stunning, depending on the bent of your personality, or the extent of your tragedy. For me, finding some semblance of routine was comforting, and I suspect that is the case for lots of people. Remembering that each of us is one of many and that all of us face unbelievably difficult personal trials can bring a clearer, easier-to-handle perspective. Yesterday was the first day that I forced myself to do some of the things that help me feel okay about the world – and doing them did, indeed, help me feel better.

The enormous importance of kindness is most obvious during times tribulation. There is no kind act that is too small, and no kind word that is unimportant. If you feel the urge to express some sort of goodwill to a fellow human, please do so. You never know what it might mean to someone experiencing difficulty. I don’t often throw out quotes, but these three seem to fit:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”   —Plato

“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.”   —George Sand

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”   —Mother Teresa

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What To Do With The Fear

Years ago, every time I had to drive I’d get sick. Eventually, I just started riding the bus, walking or begging someone else to drive me wherever I needed to go. This was before it was a law in TN that all drivers had to be insured, and at a time when purchasing insurance would have meant not eating for our family.

Our cars were tricky to drive. Things like brakes that had to be pumped a precise number of times before you wanted to actually stop, toggle switches, gears that shifted from 4th to 1st instead of the normal standard H pattern and doors that only opened from the outside defined our driving experiences.

Combine the lack of insurance and operating a barely functional vehicle with a little road construction or rush hour traffic and what you got was a hivey, anxiety-ridden dava, who thought she was going to throw up pretty much all the time.

Fear. Everyone feels it is some situations, and sometimes – like driving during my poor college years – it is justifiable and even desirable. Fear can act as a sort of built-in risk mitigator, but if you are running a business and you let fear paralyze you, your income will suffer. The further your income falls, the scarier it is and an ugly downward spiral can ensue.

Being a generally worried kind of person who also happens to have a ridiculously vivid imagination, I’m learning to recognize and deal with fear. Usually, I hesitate to talk about being afraid because it can be a little humiliating to publicly announce you are a wienie, but I was inspired by the courage Marian Schembari and her blog post about being proactive.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

1. The first thing is to realize that you are afraid of something. It’s easier to think you are staring listlessly at another hand of solitaire because you are a slacker than it is to admit that you are too afraid to do anything else.

2. It helps to do something unrelated to whatever is scaring you but that is still a personal challenge. Progress towards a goal stiffens the spine. I’ve given myself 30 day challenges, trained for a 5K, and taken on volunteer gigs as a way to gently push myself toward being just a little more courageous.

3. Talk to somebody who is likely to understand why you are afraid. Just reading Marian’s post and the comments on it made me feel better. It’s easier to talk about what’s bothering you than it is to put on a show for your peers and colleagues. Choose someone trustworthy who will listen.

4. Face it head on and deal. This one is hard, but if you set a certain time each day to just suck it up and deal with whatever it is for an hour – or even 10 minutes – you will find it far easier as time goes on. It helps some people to actually put it on the calendar.

5. Write out the absolute worst case scenario, imagining exactly how every little detail would feel. Usually, it’s not as bad as we think. The specter is often much worse than the actuality – not always, but most of the time.

That’s all I’ve come up with at this point. How do you handle it when you are afraid?

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Trash, Design, Inspiration

I read an article several years ago about a community that subsisted off of a trash heap.  “Trash heap” doesn’t quite cover it–this was more like a trash mountain.  The people who lived near it collected clothing to resell as rags, aluminum cans, and anything else they could use to make a living.  It was a sad story; I don’t remember the magazine or the name of the country because I couldn’t stand to think about it too much.

Landfills are overwhelming.  The cost to the environment is probably incalculable, and the cost to the people who live near or even in all that garbage cannot be gauged.  Today, I read something that inspired me to think we may be able to conquer and vanquish the landfills.  Human ingenuity is boundless and if enough smart people are working to change the way we deal with waste, particularly if they find a way to profit from that waste, then maybe some good will come of it.

Today Fastcompany.com posted an article called “A New Breed of Eco-Designers Reimagines the Detritus of Our Daily Lives.”  While many of the items featured in the article are too expensive for most people to use daily, (I certainly can’t afford $6.50 per 8 disposable plates-what if you were serving 50 at a party?), they do have the power to impact how we think about the way we use disposable items.

Of course, the best option is to not use disposable items: wash dishes, use refillable pens, compost your pizza boxes, and on and on.  It’s nearly impossible, though, to work, raise kids, run a household, have a social life and make time to wash cloth diapers, use a rotary mower and otherwise avoid Earth-damaging shortcuts.  Convenience has its price, but it’s also, well, convenient.

The items in the article are both convenient and avoid flagrant contribution to the landfills, and, most importantly, are being marketed through avenues that will reach a large population.   There are few people who choose to purchase items that are bad for the planet.  Instead, those decisions are driven by price and (again!) convenience.

I have a friend who always buys styrofoam disposable plates because they are cheaper than paper.  She knows perfectly well that paper plates could be composted but feels she simply cannot afford to spend any extra on what is already a luxury item.  The most recent scourge of the environment, plastic water bottles, are a problem because they are just so darn easy to use.

Designers are making a good start, but now the rest of us have to carry through by making a few simple changes in our habits and in what we put in our shopping carts.  Then, maybe we’ll begin to see the trash mountains of the world shrinking.

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How To Muffle the Madness

Perhaps you stepped on the scale and saw a number that made you want to cry. Maybe your bank account can’t support a food habit, your three best clients quit you, your significant other left you, or some other heart-rending, life-changing event has occurred. Or, maybe NOTHING has happened and that is the problem.

Whatever is making you feel like a crumpled paper towel left at the bottom of the trash can, it’s not a fun way to feel, and once you find yourself in a downward spiral it can be extremely difficult to make necessary changes and get yourself rotating in the right direction. Even thinking about that word, “changes,” can increase the speed of your descent. It’s just so overwhelming.

I’ve found myself in that unhappy spiral, rapidly spinning toward some unseen, terrifying “bottom” more than once. In fact, since I have a pretty active and detail-oriented imagination, it happens almost weekly. I imagine tripping, stubbing my toe, developing gangrene, having my leg amputated, not being able to exercise, gaining a hundred pounds, developing diabetes and heart disease, not having health insurance, declaring bankruptcy, losing my house and car, and living on the streets until I die in a ditch of a heart attack. Or something like that.

When these scenarios start playing in my mind, they multiply like cobwebs on the ceiling, getting thicker and nastier by the minute. Obviously, since I continue to get out of bed and go on living most days, I’ve figured out how to stop the madness and carry on. Okay, it would be more accurate to say I’ve figured out how to muffle the madness. It never really stops. I won’t lie to you and say that it does.

The first step is to take a shower and put on real clothes. It’s certainly acceptable, maybe even advisable, to spend a day here and there, now and then, just wearing your jammies and laying around. When you grumble because you are being forced to put on pants more than once a week or so, you should probably start forcing yourself to get dressed daily for a while. And if someone mentions that they are a little worried about you because you seem to have stopped brushing your hair, it might be a good idea to take a look in a mirror.

Once you are clean, and dressed, the rest is easy. Just do one tiny thing to improve your situation. When my house is a mess, I sweep the floor. It’s amazing how much difference a swept floor makes. When I feel like my business is failing, I write one blog post, send one email, or make one phone call. Just do one little thing.

Doing one small thing might not fix whatever your problem is, and you might feel like all you are doing is throwing a teaspoon of water on a raging fire, but then again, doing that one thing could make you feel better. When you get right down to it, that’s what you need as you imagine yourself tumbling toward failure – you need to feel better.

Once you feel a tiny bit better, you can go on to choosing a second tiny thing to do, but when you feel crushed by the weight of all those tasks waiting for you, don’t think about them. Just choose one and take care of it. If you can’t do anything else, that’s okay, you can choose another small thing for later, or even for tomorrow. But eventually, you are going to want to do a second small thing, and then – surprise! – you are spinning in the right direction again.

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