Friday, May 21, 2010

Maintaining Good Habits

I’ve never been good with developing positive habits. I could never get into exercise, for example. I had a few years’ worth of traumatic experiences with team sports as a kid, and I guess exercise is too closely associated in my mind with gym class. I just have no positive associations with the actual act of exercise to go on.

I have, however, started going to yoga. And, against all likelihood, I’ve started going at six in the morning. (I’m not a morning person either—did I forget to mention that?). At first I had to drag myself. This is the type of thing I would do once or twice, usually, and then quit. But I’ve been dragging myself every morning for two weeks. And lately I’ve discovered a strange thing.

If I skip a day, my body feels stiff and out of sorts. It’s not so hard to get up anymore, as long as I get to bed early enough. And my body feels really good when it makes those shapes. Is this how it always is with exercise? Is it only just because I never stuck with an exercise regime before for longer than a fortnight that I always hated it? Am I just now discovering something fitness nuts just instinctively know—that exercise is fun?

More to the point: is regular repetition really all it takes to develop these good habits? Does it really get easier?

I could see how this could apply to something like marketing. My marketing routine generally goes something like this: I do it for two weeks, get either the result I needed at the time or lose interest, then I wander off and do other things. Maybe if I stuck with it past that point of boredom, it would become a necessary routine—and not something I feel forced to do.

Maybe I’m learning this relatively late in my life. Maybe persistence really does pay off.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Plugging the Time Leaks

I often find myself glancing at my clock, realizing it’s the end of the day, and noticing that I got about half the things on my list done. Sometimes it’s not just that my list is too long. Procrastination is a problem for freelancers—we live and die by our own efforts alone. Procrastinating can keep you from working on your own business, marketing your services, and even doing as good a job as you could have on a client project.

I’ve been thinking lately about the types of things I do to procrastinate. One huge time sink for me is the Internet. Sometimes I need it for research—but much of the time I don’t. Most of the time I’m obsessively checking my email, cruising Facebook, and watching funny videos my friends send me on YouTube—just because I’m stuck on some project element and need a break. Of course, if I worked on whatever I was stuck on, I’d get unstuck in about five minutes. But I don’t. I go watch “Glee” reruns online.

I suppose I could start tracking where I lose time. Time spent online—time spent cleaning my house while listening to NPR—time spent taking walks and running errands instead of working. I could figure out where the time is going, and then I could plug the leak. I have zero willpower, so I literally have to remove the temptation—or remove myself from it. Recently I downloaded Mac Freedom, which prevents me from accessing the Internet for a set time (and just in case you were wondering, it works for PC’s too, despite the name). If I’m distracted by chores around the house or books or TV, I get out of the house and go work in a coffee shop. It does help. But it’s tough to maintain good habits.

I could write down what I do every day, collect the data, and assemble it into charts and graphs showing very clearly how I spend my time. But that would be a procrastination tool in itself. Wouldn’t it?

What are your most effective tools for dealing with procrastination? I need some help here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Suppressing That “Nice” Reflex

I was negotiating a contract with a client the other day. The client sent me their contract, I looked it over, and found a term I wasn’t too comfortable with. The job was interesting and paid well, and I wanted it—but not with that term. This was someone I’d done business with before, and was on great terms with. But that one thing in the contract bothered me.

So I wrote a note mentioning it and asking if we could change the contract to eliminate that one thing. And immediately regretted it. It was kind of “mean” to do that, wasn’t it? I mean, this guy and I were practically best buddies! We’d gone out to drinks together! We’re friends on Facebook! If I make waves about his contract, won’t I look like a jerk?

Then the client got back to me and all was fine. We took that section of the contract out and the project went on as scheduled. If I had listened to that voice inside my head—the one that told me I wasn’t being “nice”—I would have been stuck with a contract I wasn’t crazy about.

Being nice is all well and good with friends and family. But when you’re in business, you can’t let it get in the way of your livelihood. People who are great friends of yours will take advantage of you—and as a friend, you’re supposed to let them. But in business, it doesn’t work that way—and that’s why it’s rarely a good idea to do business with close friends.

What’s your opinion on “nice” in a business environment? Does it get you ahead—or is it self-destructive?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bad Business Advice

I've gotten plenty of bad business advice--advice that would up holding me back, going down roads that didn't ultimately lead where I wanted to go, and feeling required to do more work on my business than might be absolutely necessary. Here are a few pieces of advice I've gotten over the years that sounded like they made sense--but didn't make sense for me.

You have to have six months worth of savings before you can quit your job to freelance. The conventional wisdom is that, before you can leave a steady job, you have to have enough in savings to live on for six months. I saved a lot in my steady jobs, but couldn't make enough to meet this goal. One day I sat down and calculated out how long it would take me to get there based on my current savings rate--and it was over a year. And of course, this wouldn't account for emergencies--car problems and other costly, unexpected expenses--that would occasionally come along and wipe everything out. I took a leap without the requisite amount in my bank account--and I haven't regretted it for a minute.

For some, this advice may make sense. For me, it didn't. One of the most important lessons I've learned in my twenties is that there's never a right time for anything. Not for quitting a job you hate, having kids or pursuing a dream. You'll never feel like you have enough money. With every big move I've made, it's always been the wrong time and too expensive. I did it anyway and made it work. Maybe you can, too.

There’s only one way to build a business. There are loads of different ways to get your copywriting business off the ground. Don't despair if you have no ad agency experience, no industry contacts, and can't stand cold calling. Try a lot of different marketing methods, and pick the one you can stick with as well as the one that works.

To get by, you have to market yourself constantly. Marketing is important and it's key to building and maintaining a healthy business. But I do it only as much as I need to. You might have to spend a ton of time at first developing a system, but once you have it running smoothly, don't sweat it--unless you want to grow your business.

You always have to think about "growing" your business. Speaking of--you don't have to get really big. Most people marketing services to business owners assume I want to "grow." I don't--not in the way they mean. I don't want to hire a stable of other writers. I don't want to build a big corporation. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing--and financing a life I love. Don't come to me with offers for outsourcing and off-site offices. I love keeping it small and in-house.

What bad business advice have you received?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Promises, Promises

Over at the Well Fed Writer blog, I saw a post about an ad for a copywriting program that offers, well, let's just say pie-in-the-sky promises if only you'll pay for their class. This got me thinking about the copywriting career as a whole--and how we're prey to a lot of over-hyped marketing. People with experience just roll their eyes at this stuff. But some beginners may actually buy it. Which is why I feel it's my duty as an elder-sister-in-freelancing to some of you (even though I may not actually be older than you or your sister) to point out promises that you'll regularly see in these programs--that, trust me, are not true.

You don't have to actually know how to write to be a freelance writer! This is one I see kicking around sometimes. That you need only "simple" writing skills to make it as a freelance writer. I disagree. You're not writing novels here, true. But you do need to be a strong writer. You need to understand marketing and how to write in different tones to different audiences. You need to combine good business sense with good writing skills. And you need to UNDERSTAND grammatical rules inside and out to know the effect you're having when you break them--to get a more conversational tone, for instance. And you need to be creative to write catchy headlines and taglines. Granted, you won't necessarily have to write taglines in all jobs--but what copywriting project doesn't involve some kind of headline?

You can make a ton of money right away! This one is everywhere, and it always makes me laugh. Sure, there are plenty of copywriters who make a lot. But there are many more--especially in their first years--who don't make that much. The speed with which you find success depends on your marketing and sales ability, knowledge of your market, existing contacts, ability to differentiate yourself, and the market you're targeting--among other things. It's different for everybody. Granted, I was solvent a month after quitting my job--but I already had been freelancing part-time for a year before quitting and I had VERY low living expenses at the time and zero debt.

There are a ton of businesses just ACHING For a good freelancer! Yes, many different businesses need freelancers. But many of them need convincing as to why they should use a freelancer in the first place. There are plenty of companies who already use freelancers--and they usually have a stable of trusted ones they work with. Not to sound discouraging, but it will take some work to break into your markets. You might luck into a few clients--but the majority of your work isn't necessarily low-hanging fruit.

Work on the beach! Or in the park! Or in a coffee shop! Could you imagine actually taking your laptop to a beach? I'd be petrified the whole time. Of course, you can work in different places--as long as you can find an Internet connection or a plug-in for when your battery laptop dies. And working in coffee shops all the time will definitely run up your tab on lattes. Yes, you will have to worry--because you won't be making six figures in two months, no matter what that sales letter promised. Personally, although I love being outside, I usually find I get more done if I skip the commute and work at home.

There are lots of benefits to this business--which is why it's such an easy job to scam people into believing the dream. Some of that dream is true--but don't get sucked in by extravagant promises. If it sounds too good to be true--it is.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

When You Lose Your Savings—How to Deal

I saw a post at Words on the Page about how veteran freelancers handle the "feast or famine" cycle that comes as part of the job. One of the ways I get through that cycle is by having a nice cushion of savings to use in case of emergencies. Most people I know don't save to the extent that I do--but I've found it really necessary, and sometimes this close to life-saving, to have that cushion.

Of course, you can't have it all the time. My first full year in business, I didn't save correctly for taxes--and wound up owing a HUGE tax bill. I wrote the largest check I'd ever written in my life to the IRS, and boy, was I glad I'd had my savings--although I didn't have it any more. I felt naked without it. Vulnerable. Like if anything else unexpected came along, I would be done. I was pretty much in a panic til I managed to bring the savings account back up to pre-tax levels.

Since that year, I've depleted my savings again many times. Two moves in two years will do that. And sometimes I've just needed to get out of the country. I still hate to deplete my savings--I think if I didn't have an "only for emergencies" attitude, I couldn't make it in this business. But so far (knock on wood), the money has always come back.

Put a percentage of everything you earn into savings. This is the most pain-free way of saving I've come across. I put about 25-30% of every paycheck I get into a savings account for taxes, for example. And I never have trouble paying the tax bill, either quarterly or at the end of the year, because that money comes out of my paycheck before it hits my checking account. So I don't miss it. If my savings are depleted, I raise the percentage and put a little more into a separate savings account for emergencies or trips--set aside from the one I use for tax money.

Pay off your bills. Otherwise you get interest and penalties. That's bad for savings. Even if the bill is large and it hurts to pay it, I grit my teeth and do it--because I know I'll be kicking myself in the long run if I try to stretch out payments. I never carry a balance on my credit card, even in lean times.

Cut back. The big thing for me is eating out. It's easy to eat out five nights a week in New York City--plus drinks are expensive. I have one drink at bars and always ask about specials--and I cook dinners at home most of the time.

Look for work. This is also the time when I increase my marketing efforts. I network. I email old clients I haven't heard from in a while. I email new companies I'd like to work with. Whatever it takes.

How do you deal when you need to build your savings back up?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Get More Done. Get Offline.

Sometimes when I’m really feeling like I’m just not getting anything done, I leave the house and go to a coffee shop, park or library to work. Anywhere, really, where I CAN’T get online. It’s not that easy nowadays—especially in a big city like New York, even hotel lobbies and sandwich shops have wireless access. Sometimes I run around the city to find a place with no access as desperately as I do to find it when I’m on vacation somewhere else.

Getting offline is a very important part of my method when I play catch-up. Do you have any idea how much time we waste Facebookcrastinating (i.e., procrastinating on Facebook), writing long, non-urgent messages to childhood friends, poking around on other people’s blogs and incessantly checking our emails? And it’s not enough for me to just consciously forbid myself to get online. I’m compulsive. I can’t help it. So I have to find a place where I really can’t get online if I really need to be productive. And sometimes finding an Internet dead zone when you want one can be as hard as finding access when you need it.

Now I don’t have to leave the house to go somewhere there’s no Internet access. I’ve discovered Mac Freedom. It’s an extremely useful program that will block your Internet access completely for a set amount of time, up to eight hours. Mac Freedom won’t respond to pleads, bribery, or tantrums—no Internet til it says you can. One time I even got desperate and forced the program to quit, and it still wouldn’t let me get online. Now that’s resolution. And there’s a version for both Mac and PC users, so anyone can use it.

When I use this program, my productivity shoots through the roof. I get ahead on my blog posting. I finish edits and marketing projects I’ve been putting off. And I get time to work on my novel, too. It’s 100% worth the price—which is not saying much, because it’s free.

So what do you do when the chips are down and you need to increase your productivity?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Accepting Who You Are

Before I left on my trip, I was thinking about how to market myself—and I was trying a lot of different things, from cold calling to networking events. Trying different marketing and sales tactics didn’t gain me a lot of business right off the bat—although it did make me some contacts that seem like they’ll turn out to be useful. But it did teach me about what I like, what I’m good at, and the tactics I’d prefer to avoid.

When I started copywriting, I didn’t think there was any type of writing job I should avoid as a professional. I’ve written about this before—I thought it was somehow unprofessional to say no. I’ve since learned that in fact as you grow and become more experienced in your business, you learn what copywriting jobs are most profitable for you—and when to say no to things that don’t work for your talents or business model.

I think the same is true for marketing techniques. If you do your research, you’ll find self-proclaimed “gurus” promoting all kinds of different methods for marketing yourself. Not all of these methods will work for you personally—even if they work for others. You have to choose the methods that fit best with your talents and natural proclivities. I’ve become a proponent of working with the grain of my own personality and abilities, not against them. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Cold calling just isn’t me. Neither is any kind of aggressive sales. Don’t get me wrong—I love talking about what I do, and realize that can naturally promote my work when the situation is right. But I’m never going to be able to consistently care about “closing” a sale or call businesses cold to promote myself.

I love copywriting—but I don’t want it to be my whole life. In Europe, I started to question whether I need to grow my business to the extent that I thought I did at all. While I love copywriting, there are other things I’m even more passionate about –and I’m much more of a “work to live” person than someone who wants to work sixty-hour work weeks. If I can take fabulous trips to Europe now, what more could I want? I started to question the whole idea of working harder—un-American though that might sound.

So that’s where I am right now. Of course I plan to continue with my copywriting business, and with marketing—it’s how I ensure my stability. I’m not sure I need to push myself to be something I’m not. In the end, it’s most important to me to know what kinds of work make me happy—and as much as possible, avoid the kinds of work that don’t.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Getting Back to Your Routine

It’s tough getting back to a routine when you come back from a trip. Even though I did do some work while overseas, I was still on a different routine. Before I left, I was marketing regularly and starting to build some momentum. Now, it’s tough to get the willpower to buckle down and keep working even after I’ve finished client projects.

Here are some tactics I’m using to try to force myself back into the routine.

Make lists. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I make lists. And I get a perverse sort of pleasure from crossing things off the list. Even though the first list I made when I touched down still has items I haven’t completed, I feel more productive and organized when I’m working from a list.

Get out of the house. I have the hardest time concentrating in my own apartment these days. It’s helped me a lot to get out—just going to a coffee shop down the street helps me refocus my mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I try to pick places with no Internet connection so I don’t have the added distraction of checking my email constantly.

Take stock of your finances. There’s nothing quite so bracing as taking a look at your bank account and credit card bill after you’ve just gotten back from a trip. To make matters worse, I had to pay my taxes almost immediately after getting back to make the deadline. Knowing I have to work extra hard to get my finances back to the levels they were at before helps keep me motivated.

Plan your next trip. Of course, I don’t want to just scrape by. I want to go back to Europe. Or maybe go to Japan next time. Keeping short-term and long-term goals in mind also keeps me motivated to get back in my routine.

How do you stay motivated after getting back from a long trip?