Mental-Health Tips For The Self-Employed

This is what I got this year for Christmas from my Secret Santa at work: a pair of silk long underwear, a sterling-silver bracelet, and a 27-inch Toshiba color TV with a built-in VCR. I tell people this, and they shake their heads in astonishment. "All that? From someone at work?" I smile and nod. "Yep. All that. And guess what else? I work alone." I, in other words, was my own Secret Santa. I picked my own name out of my own hat, shopped for my own gift(s) with my own money, and then wrapped them up with my very own elegant paper and bows. This year, I also held my very own office party, which involved baking cookies, then bringing them upstairs and eating the whole plateful with my dog (the dog got only two). It was terrific: I didnÕt have to make small talk with people in the office I donÕt really know or like, I didnÕt have to worry about getting drunk and saying something stupid to my boss, and I got to set the hours for the event myself. This year, it started at around 10:30 a.m. I even sent myself a memo so I wouldnÕt forget. Being self-employed is very strange. Especially if you do something you enjoy for a living, something youÕd probably do even if you didnÕt have to, you feel the need to remind yourself that you actually have a job. You have to discipline yourself in particular ways, make sure to bring certain elements of office life to your day-to-day existence. IÕve been at it for about nine months now, working in solitude out of a small room on the second floor of my house. At first, I was obsessive and rigorous about feeling like an employee: I rose every day at the same time, showered, put on makeup, changed into work clothes, then shut myself in the office. This lasted for about six months. Nowadays, I can be found hunkered at the computer at 2 p.m. in my bathrobe, cigarette dangling from my lips, hair unkempt, traces of last weekÕs mascara smudged beneath my eyes. But no matter. As with the aforementioned personal Secret Santa and personal office party, I have come up with dozens of other ways to make myself feel like an authentic member of the Working World. Consider them mental-health tips for the self-employed. * Get to know your Inner Boss. This is the truth about working at home: you are your own boss. Acknowledging this is one thing: it means knowing that you are responsible for getting yourself motivated, completing your assigned tasks, and so on. But getting to know yourself as a boss is another matter. Who are you as an employer? A control freak? A compassionate leader? A power-mongering rat? It took me a long time to appreciate that bosses, myself among them, are complex beings, with many different sides. At first, I had a very one-dimensional Inner Boss, your garden-variety demanding taskmaster. I drove myself slavishly, yelled at myself if I didnÕt get enough done in a day, rarely let myself slack off for more than five or 10 minutes at a time. Yet after a few months, I discovered that my Inner Boss had a softer, gentler side, which I have worked hard to cultivate. These days, for example, I often hear my Inner Boss whispering softly in my ear: Hey! Why so driven? Take the rest of the afternoon off. Or, Listen, youÕve done an incredibly good job these last few weeks and I think you deserve a rest. Why not spend the rest of the day curled up on the sofa with a magazine? Sometimes, my demanding-taskmaster boss argues with my soft, gentle boss about how I should spend the day. When this happens, I retire to the sofa for a nap and let them work it out.* Nurse grudges and resentments. One of the difficult things about self-employment is that you quickly run out of people to bitch about. ThereÕs no idiot assistant to carp at when various menial tasks donÕt get completed on time; thereÕs no obnoxious guy-in-the-next-cubical-over to blame when youÕre having a hard time concentrating; no petty office politics or social dramas to obsess about. If youÕre newly self-employed, you may be vastly relieved at first to be rid of such daily annoyances and trivia. But believe me: youÕll begin to miss them. An eight- or nine-hour workday with absolutely no distractions may sound like heaven at first but it becomes oppressive after a month or two, particularly during periods of waning productivity. When things go badly at work, thereÕs no one to blame but yourself. Accordingly, all the negative emotional energy that tends to get directed toward the people around you in a normal office setting gets channeled toward the self at home. And you end up depressed. ItÕs very important, then, to find people, places, and things outside yourself to loathe and resent on a daily basis. Nurse grudges and resentments toward the mailman and the Federal Express guy. Yell at your kitchen appliances (my coffee maker broke a few weeks ago, and I hurled it across the room in a most satisfying fit of rage). Fire off angry memos to your Inner Boss. YouÕll be glad you did.* Take advantage of yourself. One of the great things about life in a real office is the opportunity it affords to get paid and hack off at the same time. Not many people admit to this publicly, but how many of us really work all 40 hours of a 40-hour work week? Not many. We rack up hours a day gossiping via e-mail with coworkers, pay our personal bills when weÕre supposed to be working, Xerox our resumes when the boss is in a meeting. It is vital to maintain some of these practices when you are self-employed: consider them morale-boosters and start padding your own expense accounts. Write letters on company time. Announce to the dog that youÕre going off to the library to do some ÒresearchÓ and then spend the afternoon shopping for shoes. At the end of the day, congratulate yourself for "getting away with it."* Yell at the computer guy. If you work at home, chances are you have a computer that periodically crashes, seizes up, or breaks down altogether. At a normal office, youÕd simply summon the computer guy, whose name you have never quite bothered to learn, and then youÕd yell at him (or bitch to someone else) when he fails to resolve the problem immediately. Sadly, there is no computer guy at home. No matter. Yell at him anyway. Stand in your office and say, "This goddamn machine crashed again, and that goddamn computer guy is out at lunch!" Pace for a few minutes. Fume. Then accept the situation and spend the rest of the afternoon curled up on the sofa with a magazine. Apply this technique to other interoffice disasters: dream up a janitor to yell at when your office bathroom runs out of toilet paper. Yell at the imaginary office assistant when you run out of envelopes or computer paper. Yell at invented coworkers for stealing your pen. And then spend lots and lots of time on that sofa. Working at home is hard, but itÕs not that hard.


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