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My son started first grade this week.  He was eager to go back to school but also somewhat nervous.  His father shared some good advice, “Just breathe.”

He was prepared.  He had a backpack and his crayons, some pencils, lunch and bus money.  He’s familiar with the morning assembly routine because he was a kindergartner there last year.  We were all wondering what his new teacher would be like and who would be in his classroom.  He was even dreading, just a little bit, the amount of homework first graders can expect (more than he had in kindergarten is all he knew).  All he had to do was show up on time.

And that’s pretty much all any of us need in order to begin.  Whether going back to school or starting a new job or business, I remember to be prepared, be excited and just breathe to cut the anxiousness that can go along with the thrill.  Oh, and to show up on time.

And what was I doing while he went off to school?  Facing a blank page and an imminent deadline.  How to begin my project?  You’d think I’d follow my husband’s advice.  But I checked my email and decided on a second cup of coffee before starting to write.  Horrors!  No more milk!  I couldn’t drink coffee without it and how could I start without coffee?  That’s when I caught on that I was probably procrastinating and a bit anxious about the project.  So I packed up a notebook and headed for the nearest cafe, ordered a latte and just started.  That’ll have to do for showing up on time.  I was prepared as I had been taking notes and brainstorming about the project for over a month.  Once that pen started moving across the paper I was excited to discover what I had to say.

It all ended well both for me and my son.  So we rewarded ourselves with our favorite things, frozen yogurt and a trip to the library.  Every great beginning deserves as much.

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I have to ask myself this question every now and then and the answer is never so simple as one or the other.  My goal is to try to do more things for fun reasons because, let’s face it, there’s enough to fear out there.  The fear channel in my brain is jammed with stuff and the fear would have to be either imminent or very threatening to get my attention and provoke an action on my part.  Relying on the fear factor alone leads me to procrastination which just turns up the volume on the fear channel and suddenly everything seems dire, fight or flight.  I much prefer the fun factor or choosing to do the things I prefer.  In the case of things I just have to do, like pay the bills, it’s more like the make-it-fun factor.

Who likes to pay bills?  I used to dread it.  And postpone it until the fear of not paying the bills on time was greater than the fear of paying the bills.  The result was that I spent most of the month dreading the task and then sacrificed an excruciating evening with the checkbook.  Then I felt relief for about a week and the whole cycle started over again.  Fortunately for me, I got a job paying the bills for someone else.  In a more proactive frame of mind, the first thing I did was to make it routine and the second was to use online bill pay options as much as possible, because I love to play on the computer and the calendar is my friend.  Eventually, I caught on that this process would work for me at home too.  Properly organized, to my mind at least, the task of paying bills was not so daunting.  I update my accounts every Tuesday in Quicken so I know what my balances are (because the underlying fear was that I would not have enough money) and pay bills each week.  For me, using the computer to take care of my bills is more fun and efficient.  And I’ve extinguished the weeks of dread while procrastinating and eliminated the sacrificial checkbook evening, freeing up that night for something that really is fun, like playing a game with my family, watching a movie, or reading a book!  That’s the true beauty of the fun factor.

Just about a year after I left a job to start my own business, I was stuck.  I could remember those first bright months when I was all potential and energy and had the confidence I needed to put up a website, print business cards, write a business plan, and expand my professional network.  I had plenty of ideas then and what I didn’t know, I knew how to learn.  It was exciting.

A year later, I was getting a little nervous that things weren’t turning out quite as planned.  I was working harder and harder and my plan had been to work smarter, not harder. As a virtual assistant, I offer that much to my clients. And here I was, putting in a full day with my son and staying up late to work on my business.   It was exhausting.

Something had to change.  I had to follow my own advice, to slow down and think about the business and to get some help doing that.  That’s when I started working with a mentor for Virtual Assistants.  My mentor’s own successful business was a great model and I was impressed by the way she laid out a program for our working together.  It was inspiring.

Honestly, I  didn’t think I would ever take her up on her offer of a 15-minute “burst” session but after a particularly trying week, I wondered “What am I waiting for?”  We sorted out what I was offering to clients, tasks, and what I really had to offer clients, more of a strategic partnership.  I also needed a little push past some procrastination on my part about buying a new computer before mine crashed.  What was I waiting for?  I dove in and took the time to get a new computer set-up, change my service offerings, and makeover my website.

I even reconsidered my pricing structure to better align with the new mindset proposed for me, that of a business owner rather than an employee.   Letting go of the old made more room for new ideas.  Now I am racing to keep up with them and making the changes that will bring me closer to success in my business!

In an ideal world, there would be no need for “bail-outs,” economic or otherwise.  Today I’m thinking about the non-economic variety.  Sometimes I overcommit to projects and plans and have to realign projects with my priorities.  Faced with the option of working like crazy to do an okay job by everyone or to cut back and do a great job for my top priority projects, I prefer to bow out graciously and allow some projects to proceed without me.  It can be awkward, because I hate to say no after I’ve already said yes.  I don’t want to let people down or appear to be flaky.  Even so, I am more committed to doing an excellent job than I am to being accommodating and medicore.

First, I am careful about what I do commit to in the first place.  If it’s a work project, I screen the job to make sure it’s a good fit first.  How many hours will it take?  What are the deadlines I will need to meet and where do they fall on my calendar ?  Any conflicts with other projects?  Personal plans?  Who is the client and what can I expect from them?  Sometimes the best of plans with the best of clients take longer than expected so I want to build that time into my schedule too.  If it looks like something that is sure to creep in scope, do I have room for that in my workload?   I leave a little wiggle room with most projects so crunches are more manageable and less stressful for all involved.  If it’s not work-related, I am even more careful because this is my “free” time we are now talking about.  I may not have scheduled activities with my family or my friends but I know I to leave some play space in my schedule in order to rest and rejuvenate and be ready to do my best work.

Inevitably I do say, “sure, no problem” to some projects that seemed like a good idea or no trouble at all, really.  Maybe my schedule wasn’t so full when I signed up.  But my schedule does fill up.  Do I want to be busy with low-priority projects and unable to take on the good stuff when it does arrive?  No.  No matter how interesting and “good” the project may be, if it does not align with my top priorities, I may need to give it a pass.  The trick is recognizing this as early as possible and owning up quickly so that the others working on the projects can find someone else to help.  Waiting until the last minute and then pulling out when things are in crisis is unpleasant for all.  Avoiding crisis altogether by reconsidering early and politely and firmly “bailing” may disappoint some but means happier results in the long run.  The project can proceed without me and I can do my best on my most important projects.