Wednesday, 27 October 2010

De-clutter update number 1

Oh dear, sad to say the throwing out isn't going well. It's not that there's nothing to blitz - far from it, but as the children are on holiday, I'm spending most of my time ferrying them from one house to another, or entertaining them at the cinema and ten-pin bowling.

Yesterday we tried to go bowling, but the queue was over three hours long! So we decided on 'The Legend of the Guardians' instead - in 3D! Well the effects were good and I managed to stay awake, but I'm not a major owl lover - despite the link with Minerva.

I did manage to get to the tip with the load I'd packed up the other day, so I've given myself a pat on the back for that, but I really must have a proper go at chucking out tonight.

Perhaps it's not a good idea to establish a new habit during a week that is so unlike most other weeks during the year - or does that sound like an excuse?

Still, early days. Maybe I'll get better. Watch this space.

What colour is your midlife crisis?

The midlife crisis is a funny beast. It inhabits many forms. For some of us, it's easy to spot because it comes into our lives dressed very clearly as a monster - things like divorce, redundancy, bankruptcy, bereavement, a serious illness - none of these shapes are difficult to identify.

But for other people, the midlife crisis is a more subtle entity. It can arrive unannounced and take up residence in our lives without us being able to see it at all for a long time. It makes itself felt in a myriad of ways, which you only get to piece together as it's impact on your life grows. It's a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but only getting the pieces in dribs and drabs over a period of time. It's not until you've got enough bits in place that you can finally name the beast.

These subtle monsters come in different guises.

There's the 'empty-nest' syndrome. This one hits you when your children reach the age when they go off to college, leave home, or are generally not needing you in as many ways as they did when they were younger. For a woman who has spent long years investing her energy in caring and nurturing her children, the loss felt when they leave home can be enormous. It's a time when you suddenly have to re-define yourself. For many women, it means having to look into a new future, without knowing what it will look like. That's scary.

Then there's the 'is this all there is?' awakening. This beast creeps us on us very slowly. You can spend years devoting yourself to your family and/or your career, only to discover gradually that it isn't leading you on a path you want to go. It's almost a slow death by disillusionment. Clues to it's presence are feeling bored by your job, finding it hard to motivate yourself to get up in the morning, generally feeling uninspired. When you're young, you have dreams, expectations, ambitions, when this beast arrives, your enthusiasm fades, you stop trying, life becomes mundane.

One of my favourite disguises is the 'I don't like doing this anymore' version. In this shape, the midlife crisis hits you with the recognition that whatever you've spent the last goodness knows how many years doing, is something you dislike, or worse, you begin to loath it. I think this one is more insidious than 'is this all there is?', because when it finally tightens the strangle hold on your mind, your peace is ruined. You're not bored, you're angry with yourself for wasting so much time. It's like realising that you've pinned your hopes on something unworthy - you feel betrayed, you want to blame someone. It's not a good place to be.

And the unlucky truth is that when we reach our middle years, the chances of meeting more than one of these monsters at the same time are increased.  

Let me tell you about my monsters.

Realising that I'm not the 'have it all' mother I was programmed to beThis was a slow process. I started motherhood, convinced that I could be both the perfect mother and housekeeper and simultaneously build a business that more than replaced my lost earnings from employment. After ten years, I know that I can be a bit of each, but trying to be everything is the route to a breakdown.

Bereavement - twice. Both my parents have died in the last three years. One suddenly, one slowly after a long illness.

Business breakdown - as they say, 'two's company, three's a crowd'. It was true for my first business, as I discovered that we weren't all pushing in the same direction.

The feeling of failure at not living up to what was expected of me.

I'd like to bet that most women my age are meeting some of these demons in their varying guises. But what interests me is where we go from here. I'm treating this stage in my life as an opportunity to grow, a chance to create my own path, not the one other people laid down for me.

I'm at a pretty early stage, but I'm feeling optimistic.

If you're meeting your own monsters and have decided to punch them on the nose and move on, please stick around. I'll be posting regularly on my journey. Perhaps we can learn from each other?

Monday, 25 October 2010

De-clutter for a clearer mind?

It's happened again. I've come down to my office - for some reason still referred to as 'the dining room', despite the fact that we haven't dined in here since Christmas Day 2005, and there hasn't even been a dining table in here for three years - to find my desk covered in other people's detritus.

Now if you work out of the home and your colleagues trash your desk, you'd feel rightly angered. But for some reason, leaving coffee mugs, wine glasses, empty crisp packets, library books, hair brushes, address books and mobile phone chargers, all over my desk, is considered to be acceptable.

Well, of course being a fair-minded type of woman, I did contemplate leaving it there, so I could berate the offenders when they come home, but frankly I needed to get on, so I've had no choice but to get tidying. And what do you think has happened?

Amazingly for me, I've actually found it cathartic. Having cleaned up my desk, I felt inspired to do a few other bits of de-cluttering around the house. I've loaded four bags of old clothes into the car to take for recycling, I've rediscovered a chair in the hall, that's been masquerading as a clothes horse, and I've thrown a pile of ancient magazines in the orange bin.

Result - I feel much more in control. Which rather makes me reconsider the self-imporvement books that tell you before you can start off in new directions, you need to clear out space in your life.

I've always found those instructions rather glib, in fact, being as good a procrastinator as the next woman, I'd rather concluded that this was simply another justification for not getting to grips with the job in hand.

But now I'm having second thoughts. I know I work better when I have the house tidy and the kitchen well stocked, perhaps I need to give more thought to keeping on top of the clutter too.

Now the danger is that I'll try and bite off more than I can chew - Heaven knows I'm not spoilt for choice of places to de-clutter in this house - but from past experience I know that if, for instance, I try and tackle the girl's playroom, I'm in for a frustrating time. Instead, the theory is that you should make de-cluttering a daily, micro activity.

So, this week I'm going to give it a try. Every day, I'm going to spend fifteen minutes, throwing away (for which read recycling where appropriate) thirty things - any size, any shape - as long as it's not adding to our family happiness, out it's going.

I'll keep you posted!

Friday, 22 October 2010

Half Term Looming - Good Luck Everyone!

Well, it's here - the half-term school holiday.

It's a time of mixed emotions in this house. I love having the children at home some of the time. I adore not having to get up before dawn to make sandwiches, iron school shirts and check all the homework gets packed away into the school bags. I appreciate an extra half hour in bed in the morning.

But if you can't take time out of your work, you're left with the difficult job of entertaining your children, while also - sometimes simultaneously, getting on with your job.

It's exhausting when your children are young. You can't leave them alone, you feel guilty if they watch too much TV, you want to spend quality time with them, but you've got deadlines too. As they get older, you can hope for a little more respite. If you're really lucky, they'll want to spend time away at friend's houses.

When my children were very small, I used to try and work in the evenings, after they had gone to bed, but usually I was so tired after a full day with them, that all I wanted to do was sleep too.

Now I'm a bit more relaxed about it. I've found that what works best for us, is to allocate certain days when I don't work, or at least parts of days, and then I let them find their own entertainment on the days when I do have things that have to be done.

A few cooperative friends are a godsend too, and if at all possible, I reciprocate as soon as possible.

So I'd like to wish all work from home and work alone mums out there a very happy week. Don't get too stressed, and be kind to yourself. It's only for a few days, then, guess what - we'll have the prospect of Christmas to look forward too!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

What does your business card say about you?

When I was in the corporate world, I didn't give much thought to my business card. The design was the same for everybody, you were presented with a pack of them when you joined the business, and apart from handing them out at the occasional trade fair, or to new clients, they were pretty much a non-event. More than a few ended up as shopping lists, or as bookmarks.

When I first started my own business, I did everything very much 'on the cheap' and it was a few months before I got round to having business cards made. I went to a local printer, who looking back, did a less than average job, at an exorbitant rate. Well you live and learn.

But since then, I've noticed myself becoming increasingly interested in business cards as a tool for us small business owners.

What originally was simply a means to leave behind a note of your name and telephone number, has developed into a neat little marketing device, that you can set to work for you.

They're small and robust, so always carry a few in your purse. Hand them out liberally to all the people you know, and remind them to recommend you if anyone they know, ever needs your service. People give more credence to you if you've got a card, rather than scribbling your details on a scrap of paper.

Now here's the exciting bit. Although business cards are small - and don't be tempted to 'go large' on these - nobody wants a card that doesn't fit their holder, they are a great way communicate what sort of person you are.

Think about the image you want your prospective clients to have of you. No two businesses are the same, and this is especially true when you are your business, so it makes sense to make the most of your defining characteristics and help people get a quick feel for you.

If you're involved in a fairly conservative industry, it might be necessary to present yourself in a conservative manner. Avoid flashy graphics and colours. Keep it elegant and professional. But of course, sometimes bucking the trend might give you the differentiation that would get you noticed. So maybe you add an element from a less formal design to demonstrate that although you're a professional, you're able to add character to your service.

The opposite is also true. If you're involved in creative work, having a dull card might also single you out from the masses, but do it with wit and style.

What matters is that the card represents the real you. So it's very important to decide what your key values are and how to communicate them. Don't go for a massively whacky card, that presents you as a wild eccentric, if you're actually the sort who likes to be tucked up in bed with a hot milky drink at nine thirty every evening.

You don't have to be a creative genius these days to get a good design, and unless you're rolling in money, don't pay a designer to produce artwork. There's time for that when you're well established, but in the early days, value for money and flexibility are more important.

Look for an online site like Vistaprint and you'll have masses of options available and be able to build up a design that meets your needs at a really minimal cost. The process is simple, just be very careful to check all the details before you commit to buy.

Especially when your business if fairly new, using a low cost supplier means you're not tying up too much money in a design that you may very well want to change fairly soon. For example, although we set up our first business as a mini-marketing agency, it was copywriting that brought us most of our early customers. Changing the message on our cards to reflect this, made it much easier to communicate with potential clients.

The most important element to include - well after you contact details - is a message, or tag line. Think hard about this and try to make sure it says something meaningful. Bland or unintelligible messages will tell clients that you're bland or confused.

Instead, think about what benefit your service gives to your customers, and try to get that across. You want them to read it and think 'oh yes, that's what I need'. Put yourself in their shoes and test out your message.

In some markets, humour works well, but it's 'horses for courses', I wouldn't use a funeral director who had a pun on his business card - but maybe that's just me.

And a word about the back of the card. Don't waste this space. If your business involves appointments, the back can make a good alternative appointment card. Alternatively, you could advertise your website on the back, or you could show a simple list of the services you provide.

Give the back as much thought as the front. My tip is to leave a little space where you can write a personal message. This can be useful if you're doing a lot of networking and want to help contacts remember exactly who you are.

So, in a nutshell, business cards are useful, it's well worth having them, but don't pay loads for them, don't buy too many at a time and be prepared to change them as you go along. Allow some quality time to draft what you want to say so that it tells prospective clients who you are, a bit about your personality and what benefit you could give them.

Have fun.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Reduce your stress levels, make weekly meal plans.

Does this sound familiar; you're busily working, your mind engrossed in what you're doing when suddenly you look at the clock and realise it will soon be time for dinner, but you haven't a clue what to cook? The fridge contains a nothing more appetising than a dried out lump of mouldy cheese and half a tin of baked beans, and you don't have time to go out and shop.

According to most of my 'work for themselves' friends, it's a very common situation. 

I have to say that until the new school term started this September, that had been me, pretty much all the time. I used to idolise, and rather envy, my - shall we call them 'earth-mother' friends, the ones who had it all under control, who would pop a casserole in the slow oven in the morning and come home to a hearty meal at dinner time.

Even if by some miracle, I'd got as far as buying the stewing beef, the chances of turning it into anything other than shoe leather in half an hour before the family arrived home were slim indeed.

Of course I knew what I should do - we all know that we should 'get organised'. But how do you actually embrace this alien concept?

Well, this September, I was all overcome with a desire to 'get on top of things'.

I knew myself well enough, to realise that I actually manage my work much better when I have my home life under control. I'm not talking major housework stuff here, for me the basic necessities are; clean school uniform and underwear for the girls, work shirts for himself, clean toilets and a tidy(ish) kitchen. If I'm being particularly domestic, I might vacuum round a bit too and plump the odd cushion.

The piece of the puzzle I'd never quite managed to put in place, was feeding the family at dinner time. What I eventually decided to do was to stop viewing the domestic responsibilities as chores that stop me from doing my 'work', but instead to think of them simply as another 'job' that I hold down as well. Now I know that when I'm 'at work', I'm a pretty good organiser, so changing my attitude to my home 'job' means I can approach it in the same way.

So far so good. 

I knew that the best way to get organised was to plan our meals for about a week ahead, but I'd tried this before and although I could do it for a week or two, something would always crop up to throw me off track and before I knew it, I'd be back to the cheese and baked beans nightmare.

What could I do? Well the answer, kind of came together when by some delightful coincidence (or was it fate?) I found a little book on Amazon with the unlikely title, How to feed your whole family a healthy balanced diet with very little Gill Holcombe. Thanks Gill, you've made this mad mother very happy!

Gill's book is no Nigella style cookbook - instead she comes to the issue of fitting in the feeding your family with working and having to stretch a tight budget, in short exactly the situation so many of us find ourselves in.

The practical advise is spot on. There aren't any fancy or expensive ingredients in her recipes and no cooking techniques that you'd have done once in Home Economics if you were at school in the 1970's.

At the end of the book, Gill gives ideas for weekly meal plans and shopping lists. Now this is where I had my break-through. Rather than write a meal plan one week at a time, write up four or five plans and keep them all together in a book or a ring-binder. That way, when the inevitable spanner comes winging along, you don't have to start from scratch with a blank shopping list on a cold Monday morning.

It did take me a couple of hours to work out five plans that I thought would suit the various dietary preferences of the family, but now having done it once, I don't have to keep doing it every week. I just rotate the plans.

I've been living with this system now for nearly two months and for me at least, it works!

OK, I might make the odd adjustment as we go along, but in principle, I know what I'm going to cook each day in a week and when I shop I make sure I buy everything I need for those recipes. 

There's a bonus too, less waste. When you  know what you're going to prepare, you don't end up buying lots of 'I might be able to do something with this...' purchases.

Now, when the afternoon wears on, I'm much more relaxed - I'm back in control and it feels good.

If you've any helpful tips for getting organised, please leave a comment.

Monday, 18 October 2010

What they don't teach you at Harvard Business School.

There's a very important rule of business that they don't teach you at Harvard Business School, come close and I'll tell you what it is... the rule is this, you can wait all day for a very important telephone call, but it won't come until you're at the loo.

You might laugh, but I've worked on my own from home now for over seven years and therefore my research is extensive, and I can categorically confirm that this rule holds true.

Just today I've had this experience. I've been waiting for a response to a piece I've written since last week. All morning I'd hovered in close vicinity to the phone, hoping that it would ring. There was washing to hang out, but I know that it's a fatal error to hang out washing if you're waiting for a call, so the sopping pile is still in the basket.

I sat and looked at the phone for just long enough to feel that it wasn't a healthy obsession, but nothing happened.

Then finally, just before lunchtime and after too many mugs of coffee, I gave in an went to the toilet, et voila! No sooner am I 'otherwise' engaged, than the dulcet tones of the telephone trill out.

I don't know how quickly you can get from your toilet to the phone, but I've had two children and I wear jeans practically every day, so for me it's more of a marathon than a sprint. I've also learned from bitter experience that I must replace every piece of clothing before reaching my office. The window looks straight out onto the path to our front door, it's the route the postman takes. Suffice to say, once is enough! I'm not sure if the poor postman ever recovered.

Lately, I'm using my mobile far more for my business calls than I used to. This has a huge advantage - I can take it WHEREVER I go. I think this may prove to be a huge relief, as long as I can avoid dropping it down the pan. That's something else I don't expect Harvard teach you.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Self Esteem for Freelancers.

If you decide to go it alone, as a freelancer or as a small business, there's one thing you're going to need oceans of, and that's self esteem.

If your self esteem bank has loads of credit, this is no problem, but for a huge number of us, our reserves are dangerously low. If you want to make a success of your business venture, you're going to need to boost those resources. The good news is that you can, but it's not something you're going to manage overnight, putting deposits in your self esteem account, takes time and it takes effort.

When you've been out of the career market for a while, it's very easy to lose sight of your worth. Our society places so much emphasis on what people do, instead of who they are and the values they live by, which makes it particularly hard for anyone who can't define themselves in a work role.

So if your self esteem needs boosting, how do you go about it? 

Over the last few years, I've read a lot on the subject, right from the clinical approach, through to the modern 'gurus'. What I'd say from the things I've read is, although there are many paths to increased self esteem, one thing seems consistent - it's not a quick fix.

So if you need to build your self-esteem, be prepared to make it an on-going project and treat it with the seriousness it deserves. I used to think that if I just found the 'right' book, the one with the answer for me, that would be the job done, but I no longer believe that. I've quite a collection of books on my shelf now, but I've come to the simple conclusion, that building your self esteem takes sustained effort. It's something you need to commit to, so put your heart into it and make it a daily practice.

So what do I think works?

The following suggestions are what work for me. I know they might not work for you, we all come to the journey from different places and with different baggage, but in case it helps anyone, these are my favourite tips for building self esteem.

1. Make a list of your achievements.
When you're feeling low, it can be very difficult to remember the times when you've done things you feel pleased, even proud about. That's why it's important to keep a record of your achievements as they happen.

I'd propose buying a good quality note book, especially for the purpose. I keep mine on my desk and try to put something in it every day - OK some days it's simple things like 'cooked dinner even though I felt rubbish', but you'd be amazed after a few weeks how uplifting these recollections can be.

If you use it as a journal, be careful to keep it positive. If bad things have happened, don't write about them here. Your aim is to have a databank of juicy achievement to dip into whenever you need it.

2 Be careful who you hang out with.
It's a sad fact, but some of the people we know, are happier when things are going badly for us, than when they're going well. You probably know who I mean. They're accustomed to a certain status quo and they don't react well if you change. These people can be very sapping when you're starting a new venture - actually they are always sapping- but they are more dangerous when you're putting yourself into a vulnerable place, such as when you're embarking on a new phase in your life.

It's not easy, I know, but if you have people like this in your life, be very careful not to spend too much time with them when you're germinating your business ideas. Nothing is more damaging than negative reactions to our dreams, it takes a lot of self confidence to take the plunge into freelance life, so put up barriers and protect yourself from negative influences.

Instead, seek out the positive people in your life. Try and relax with the friends who support you and really do have your best interests at heart. Incidentally, I tend to find these are the same people who already have good levels of self esteem.

3 Look after your well-being.
Neglecting yourself doesn't serve anyone. So give caring for yourself top priority. Make time to indulge in the things that make you happy. Try to laugh every day - it's a wonderful release.

4 Don't try and do it all in one day - be kind to yourself.
My biggest problem is that once I have an idea for something, I can't rest until I've poured myself entirely into it. I beat myself up internally because I can't get on with it all quickly enough. But if I stand back, I know that this is unreasonable. It's also wrong, because you learn as you go on and nobody can close themselves off indefinitely, so I now have to remind myself often, that it's better to proceed slowly and steadily and get to my goal, than rush at it and burn out.

If this is one of your tendencies, be kind to yourself - you'll have more success if you keep on steadily.

5 Silence your 'inner critic'.
There's a voice in my head that tells me how tough life is and how high the odds are stacked against me. If I listen to that voice, I give up and head for cover. For quite a long time, that voice was pretty in much in control of me, but not any more.

These days, I'm becoming much more aware when I hear that voice, and now I have an answer. I ask the voice why it says that, and what it's trying to protect me from. And the answer is nearly always the fear of change and the fear of failure. I've decided that the only way forward is to face fear and to face change, even strive for change. So now I tell that voice that it's OK, not to panic. I'm strong and I'm going to cope. Then I carry on.

This is a really hard one, and it takes concentrated effort. I don't always get it right. But the important thing is that nowadays, I keep trying.

These are my top tips. I have a few more ideas too, but I think I'll write about those another day - if you've found any particularly successful way to boost your self esteem, please let me know and we'll share them here.

But one last thought; you are unique. No one like you has ever existed, no one has ever had your combination of talents and experience to offer. You don't just owe it to yourself, you owe it to all of us to be the person who are deep down. It's your job to find that person, bring her into the world and care for her. It's never too late to start.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Calling All Time Wasters

You know how it is, there's work to be done, you're almost in the mood, all it takes now is a few minutes of concentration and you'll be off and flying. And then what happens?

You take a sneaky peak at your emails; there's an offer from Amazon, you have a quick look, it's not exactly what you want, but just while you scan the contents you notice something else that's right up your street, you go there and have a good look. You're not sure, so you read the reviews, can you trust them? Read some more just in case. Google the product and see what other people think. See alternatives and follow them up too.

Oh my, the coffee has gone cold and it's half an hour later than you thought.

Back to work. This time you mean business. You crack on.

The post arrives. Better go and see what's there, hope there's nothing from HMRC. Oh look, a catalogue from the holiday cottage people. Just pop the kettle on and have a fresh cup of coffee while you skim through and mentally plan your next holiday - Devon or Dorset, you wonder. 

The phone rings, it's that friend you should have called last week, you feel a bit guilty, you haven't got time to chat now, but if you cut her short, she'll be hurt. You chat on, and on.

Good heavens, is that really the time? Now you're up against it. Is there still time to get it all done?

You try to focus, you try to think straight, but you brain will keep wandering off. Come back! I must get this done, you tell yourself. And now the clock is ticking and you know that in an hour you'll have to go and pick up your child from school. What will you cook for dinner tonight? What's in the freezer? Is it too late to defrost it now?

Stop, stop, stop. Just settle down, you've still got time. OK, now you're focussed, it's going well. There's still a chance.

The doorbell rings. Ignore it. No, he's peering through the window, he knows you're there. It's the electric man, 'can he read your meter?' How can you refuse?

You find the garage key, move the car that's blocking the garage door, open up, pull out four bikes of various sizes that live propped up against the wall, under the electricity meter... 'Thanks' - 'No problem'.

You put back the bikes, close the door, move the car.

Look at the time! Where's it all gone?

What can you do now? Oh to hell with it, put the kettle on and make another drink, that's all there's time for now.

Sound at all familiar?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Let's Talk Money.

Unless you come to your own business from a finance or accountancy background, the chances are you'll have a somewhat tentative relationship with money. But if you're going to make a go of being your own boss, it's really important to come to terms with money and be comfortable talking about it.

Pitching For Business
If you're like me, you'll get all excited, putting together a great presentation, concentrate lots of effort into developing a rapport with the respective client and convince them you're the right person for the job. If you're expecting them to take it further, don't be a coward and sidestep the money talk. It's too easy to be 'too polite to mention it', but believe me, if you don't raise the subject, you'll regret it.

Know your worth and when the time is right - probably once you're pretty sure they want to go further - raise the subject of your fees. Hard to say, I know, but it's much better to find out sooner rather than later if they can't afford you. Remember you've got to make a living, you're not a charity, so be firm.

Before you speak to a prospective client, make sure you've decided a suitable rate. If the business is something you'd still want to do, but you find their budget isn't sufficient, there are polite ways to reduce your rate, without setting a precedent you end up being stuck with. For instance, say something like;

My usual daily rate is £x, but I might be able to adjust that for this project.


Although my normal rate is £x, this is a particularly interesting project and I may be able to help you at a special rate.

Remember, it's much easier to adjust a fee down, than to raise it.

Get It In Writing

Once you get the go ahead, put everything in writing and get a signed contract. I know it seems like you're saying you don't trust them, but actually it presents you as a professional. Don't work with people who don't treat you with respect, and this is an aspect of your relationship where you both need to be respectful. I judge businesses by the professionalism of their accounting.

If you don't have a contract, have a look around online to see if there's anything you could adapt, if you're not sure, speak to a solicitor who'll draft something for you. OK, it costs, but it's cheaper than running into problems later.

Getting Paid

Once you've done the work, your next challenge is to get paid. The first responsibility is yours. You must send an invoice promptly. Businesses of all sizes detest suppliers who send in late invoices. It causes them problems, and more importantly, if they decide not to pay, it will cause you problems too.

When you're in business for yourself, cash flow is critical, so make invoicing your priority. To be honest, I used to hate doing it, I've always had much more fun from doing the work and them moving on to the next project. But when it's your livelihood, you can't afford to be like that.

Make a small ritual of invoicing and enjoy it.

Chasing Up Payments

It's sad but true, you'll have to chase payment sooner or later. Keep a close eye on what's due that's outstanding. It's polite to send a statement detailing the amount owed and the time overdue before you get heavy, but if that doesn't see a result, it's time to get on the phone. Find out the name and email of the person responsible for paying you and contact them. Don't send anything to a department, make sure you have a real person to contact.

You'll probably want to work with them again, so keep it civil. Firm but polite is key. Often you'll find it's lack of organisation rather than deliberate delaying, and sometimes the accounts payable people have a hard time, so try and be reasonable.

In my experience persistence is the best approach. Half a dozen polite calls seems more effective than a couple of heated exchanges.

When it's your own business, talking money is essential, so don't be a coward, pluck up all your courage and start getting comfortable with it now.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A 'Spinning Plates' Morning

There's nothing like combining family life with running a small business from home, to keep you on your toes. Top of my C.V. (not that I've written one for over eighteen years) should be the words 'keeping plates spinning in the air, a speciality'

We had a busy weekend, so this morning has found me manically ironing various items of school uniform, constructing nutritious packed lunches from the almost bare contents of the bread bin and fridge and then racing round two local supermarkets, stocking up on the essentials for the week. I've managed to put all the shopping away, wash up the breakfast crocks and do a superficial 'tidy-up', so now, with a strong black coffee at my side, I'm finally ready to start work.

When I commuted, there was the drive to the office to give me time to adjust from one role to another, now that I work from home, I have to achieve the same transition between the kitchen and the dining room/office. I don't think my brain works at quite that speed, which is why I end up sitting in front of the computer with a rather vague notion of what to do first, or indeed on bad days, what to do at all.

Part of my brain is still trawling the shelves of Waitrose and wondering what I forgot to buy this week, but now I'm going to make a strenuous effort to stop thinking 'home' and start thinking 'work'. Has anyone out there got any useful tips for doing this?

And of course in a few hours time, I'll have to abandon the 'work' hat and put on the 'taxi-driver' hat when the children come home from school. Followed by the 'cook' hat and then probably the 'taxi' hat again.

I think the potential for schizophrenia exists in all work-from-home mums, but as the children are getting older it's becoming worse - or perhaps my brain just can't take the pace. Before the children arrived, I always considered myself to be a very well organised person, it's not business planning I have a problem with, it's combining the business with home.

I have tried using various time-management techniques; the seven part file, the calendar on the computer, post it notes, you name it, but on the whole, with little success in this environment. I know that my nirvana, would be to slip effortlessly from one persona to another, without allowing any interference from the person I've just been, or the one I'll soon become, but as yet I remain unenlightened.

So now I'm off now to clean the desk. I'm not sure if that's work or home related, but I'll plan what to do next while I polish!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Get out of the house!

For the last seven years, I've worked from home. There are masses of benefits as anyone doing the same thing will agree. I can wander around in jeans and a jumper, I can wash my hair in the afternoon if I feel like it and I can take off to the shops if I suddenly get the urge for a bit of retail therapy. It's all good stuff, but...

Of course there is a 'but', and for me it's the fact that all too often I tend to become housebound. I know, that sounds ridiculous, I can walk out any time I choose. And there's the rub. If I'm not at my desk - or very close to it, I become overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt. I feel that I should sit there and BE USEFUL.

It must be some kind of throw-back to the years spent at school and at work, when you had a desk and you duly sat behind it, behaving yourself (most of the time) until you were allowed to go home. How deep does that feeling go? I know very well that I'm my own woman, I can make my own decisions and when I do what, is entirely up to me. Sometimes that works, but if I'm honest, it's not always how it pans out.

I tend to find that the guilt builds up gradually. It's worst on the days when I don't have a big deadline to make. Yes, I was one of those children who did all her homework on Sunday evenings. Not having anything that has to be done on a particular day, leaves me with the dilemma of what I should do instead. Should I sit at my desk and develop my business, or should I take off and have fun? Well naturally my internal work ethic voice is telling me to be productive. But then when I try to be useful, my mind wanders around. That can go on for hours and hours, I might even have a few days like that. Then I'll suddenly realise that I'm losing my motivation, I'm feeling low.

What's the answer? Well, I've come to realise that the simple answer is to get out of the house. It's not healthy to be cooped up with only your own brain for company for too long without a break. Working alone at home, means no photocopier to hang around with friends, no gossip (unless you're Facebook-ing instead of 'working') and if you're not very disciplined, no lunch break.

So take a tip from me. Allocate yourself time every day to get out of the house. Go and buy a paper, a pint of milk, or just walk around the block. It doesn't matter where you go, just go out. A break and a bit of air has a restorative effect - and with winter not far off, it's even more important to look after yourself.

There is no law that says you have to spend the day at the desk when you're your own boss - give yourself permission to chill.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I love Barbara Sher

About a year ago, I came across the books of Barbara Sher on Amazon. I'd just like to say an enormous 'THANK YOU' to Barbara because I think she's revolutionised my life. Her book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want has been around for over thirty years, but I'd never heard about it before - how I wish I had! Discovering it has made such a difference to me.

Barbara gives you the very best career and life advise I've come across - and I've read loads. Not only is what she says practical, it's also supportive in a way that just inspires you to believe in yourself, get out there and have a go at really living.

If you're wondering about your own potential, if you want to do something everyone else says is stupid, or if you need putting back on track after a big event such as redundancy, or bereavement, or perhaps like me, your children have left that dependent state and you find yourself wondering how to fill the time, then read Barbara's books.

One of the characters she identifies is the 'Scanner'. This is a person who doesn't settle into one career or one interest alone. Instead, Scanners love to try out loads of things. They have lots of ideas, lots of hobbies and get excited by many things. However a Scanner can get bored quickly and move on to the next exciting new idea, which is why both Scanners and people around them, sometimes see themselves as failures.

In our society, generally only people who 'stick at it' and become experts in a single area are seen as being successful - think doctors, lawyers.

For Scanners, sticking at anything for longer than you feel enthusiasm is almost impossible, or at least it won't make you happy. Barbara helps you see the value in your approach and suggests ways to achieve what you want in life that will sit well with your own special values.

Her style appeals to me. It's a bit like having a supportive and sympathetic counsellor talking to you, but also a mother or aunt who just has your best interests at heart. 

If you haven't read Barbara's books, give them a go. 

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Is there anybody out there?

Hello and welcome to the first post on my blog. 

Today, after years of reading what other people are doing, saying and thinking, I finally decided to hit the buttons and create my own blog. What will I be blogging about? The things that feature most in my life at this time - how to combine work and family life, how to decide what to do with the rest of my life, how to stop the house looking like a dump - you know the type of thing.

How did I get here? Well I'm not one of those people with a grand 'life plan'. Oh no, not me. I'm more of the 'one day at a time' brigade. So at the age of late forty-something, I find myself with a husband, daughters and a very small business which I run from my dining room. 

I grew up in the Midlands, not far from Worcester, did well at school and went to university at eighteen. And that's where I think things started to go adrift. It was the early 1980's and things weren't good in the economy. Coming from a working class family, the really important thing was to have work and be employable, so I ended up studying a subject that was guaranteed to make be employable. Great logic, but as it now turns out, many years later, not the way to ensure you enjoy and thrive in what you do.

Let me explain. When I went to university, I gave up all the things I was actually good at doing. I stopped painting and drawing - obviously they were never going to be economically 'useful' because everyone knows how few artists make a living - or so we all thought then. I stopped studying history - actually my most favourite thing. I stopped playing my 'cello - maybe no great loss to the world of music, but it had been a part of me for nine years by that time.

Instead I learned how to manage business. I learned marketing, accounting, production management and all kinds of stuff that was important to business in the 1980's. Was I any good? I was clever enough to do reasonably well, but I never found any passion for it. For the next twenty years, I worked in marketing for a variety of companies. I was self supporting, bought my own home, had a good quality of life as a wage slave, but also experienced the trauma of redundancy three times.

And then, along came the man of my dreams and off we went into the journey that is marriage and parenthood. And suddenly my role changed. From being a career woman, I became a working mother, juggling home, baby and work. Of course I kept on working, I'd no idea what else to do, and anyway I was from that era when you thought you knew so much better than your parent's generation how to combine everything - we really could 'have it all'. 

But then I came to realise that in fact I couldn't have it all after all. Leaving my daughter everyday was tearing me apart. Now the passionless job became more and more unbearable. Finally, when I became pregnant for the second time, I decided it was time to call it quits and become a housewife.

At that time I was so relieved to get out of the corporate environment and stop wrenching myself in two every time I left my little girl that it felt great. But when daughter number two was still quite small, I realised that the need to do something other than the purely domestic was getting stronger. I wanted to do something to keep my brain alive. I felt I was disappearing.

Another mum in a similar position came up with a small business idea, and we set up our own 'work from home' business in 2003. And that's what we've been doing ever since. 

So you see, for several years now I've been combining work and home in a very practical way. When we started our company, we were pretty much in the minority amongst the women we knew. But now there are more women out there, doing the same thing. For a while we felt as if we were just playing, but gradually, I've realised that we were at the forefront of a movement, where experienced, intelligent, aspirational women, were re-defining what home and work could look like. We knew that we couldn't combine the nine-to-five mentality with bringing up our children and still feel content. But we also knew that we didn't want to give up our skills and experience - we wanted to change the balance.

The last two or three years have been tough. In 2007 my dad died, and just nine months later my mum was diagnosed with cancer. She had to come and live with us, which was both a privilege and difficult by turns. She died in 2009.

Also over those years, a business development we'd tried went pear shaped and I found myself with significantly less regular work than I'd had before.

Over the last year, since mum died, I've been reassessing what I'm doing with my life. I'm on a journey that I was never prepared for, but which I find many, many other women are also experiencing. This blog is the place where I'll be thinking out loud about the issues that face us on this journey.

Please feel free to come along with me.