Friday, February 27, 2009

Routines to Savor Time

Both times I've been unemployed it took me three months to find a new job. Three months is both a short and long amount of time. Short enough to live low on unemployment, severance, and savings. Long enough to tackle a dream...that is, if you allow yourself to savor the time.

Savoring time may seem obvious if you've never been unemployed, but it can be a huge mental hurdle to jump. Thoughts run through your mind like a news ticker "Why aren't they calling...How long can I wait to make a payment...What am I doing with my life...Am I ever going to have a paycheck again...Need to write a cover letter...Why aren't they calling?!#$%"

That's why I'm an advocate for developing routines to savor time (RTST). First off, RTST are a much needed distraction from the voices in your head. Second, they introduce a sense of meaning and accomplishment back into your life. Third, they keep you in the present (away from the pain of the past and fear of the future).

When developing your RTST, consider what could improve your life overall. What have you dreamed about doing but always dismissed because you "don't have time"? That's no longer a valid excuse. You have TIME! And if you're going to be unemployed for 3+ months, what could you do with that time that would have a positive impact on your life...even when you start a new job?

My routines included: exercise 3x week; clean house 1x week; walk dog slowly w/ mug of coffee at 8:30am & watch everyone else cram into their cars to go to work 4x week; keep my daughter home from daycare 1x week and go to museums, parks, visit friends; write a poem everyday 7x week, for one month; see a matinee 1x week.

Here's your homework. Make a list of potential RTST. Don't censor yourself. Write the first things that come to mind. You can use the categories below to get started.
  • Creative (life long goals & aspirations)
  • Practical (cleaning, home repair...)
  • Fun (exercise, playdates, day trips, matinees...)
Once you have established a list, select your favorites and assign a weekly or daily "routine" and "goal" for each (example: write 500 words of the great american novel 1x per day; run 3 miles 4x per week). If you still don't think you've got enough "time" here's some inspiration...

Write a Novel in One Month
: The National Novel Writing Month website has tools & tips on how thousands of people have written a novel (50,000 words) in the space of one month.

Muscular Body in One Month: Read how Four Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss went from skinny to muscular in four weeks (plus the pictures to prove it!)

Clean Your Entire Home in One Hour: Great article on Associated Content site with strategy for cleaning your entire house in one hour.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kill the Future

The company that eliminated my job last year had another round of layoffs yesterday. Hearing from people peeled open the experience like a fresh wound. The confusion, frustration, anger. The sense of instability and fear in what the future might hold.

For me, those first 24 hours moved in slow motion. I can slip into the memory like it was yesterday. That odd sensation of leaving the building at 9:30am. With no place to go, I drove.

My sense of the present moment hightened sensation to everything around me. I could see again, I could smell, I could hear. There was no future. It was just me, alone in my car, living it moment by moment. And I wrote this poem...

I (heart) Balloon
Today, while driving on Route 50, I looked up
and saw a red heart shaped balloon
float over the roadway. Float over
and up. And I said, "Oh!" to no one,

I was alone in the car. The balloon kept
going, out of my sight. Free and bold--
so bright and odd against the baby blue

sky. Its cord cut. Like me, no longer
pregnant. Like me, without a job.
Like me--just stare as I float by, not

knowing where I'll land. And you may
gasp, "No!" thinking what would you do--
but I know that the air exhilarates.

There are things in life that job loss cannot take away. In fact, I realized, that my job had stolen something from me all those years: it had taken my sense of the present and replaced it with "security in the future."

How swiftly the present ran back into my arms like a child that morning. And as we embraced, I knew that things were okay. Not that they were "going to be okay" but that they were "okay" here in the present moment.

So to my friends and countless others who find themselves without a job this morning, I encourage you to take a deep breath, to look around you, to see, smell, let go of the future, and welcome the present back into your life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Are You "Mad as Hell"?

Sara Clemence's article "The Just-Laid-Off Checklist" on reminded me of one of the best pieces of advice I received the morning of my layoff: "go see a movie." The words came from my job outplacement agent, and for some reason, they are the only ones I remember from that morning (aside from the infamous "...your job has been eliminated").

It just so happened that a layoff classic arrived off my Netflix queue that afternoon: Network. In case you haven't seen it, the movie starts when network news anchor Howard Beale looses his job. With two weeks left as anchor, he announces on live television that he will commit suicide by shooting himself on air. As you can imagine, the plot only gets better. The pinnacle moment being his instruction to all viewers to open their windows and scream out loud "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Watching Beale's speech again, I saw how strikingly relevant it is today. For starters, the movie takes place during a similar period of economic crisis in America (1976). If it was delivered on air tonight it would still make sense (just substitute "recession" for "depression" and "Iraq" for "Russia").

He not only describes a state of economic depression but individual depression -- the solitude of workers arriving home at night to eat dinner alone in front of the TV. His rally to viewers to stop the cycle and declare their worth, to admit to themselves and the world, "I'm a human being God damn it. My life has value!" is as powerful now as it ever was.

Beale says that nothing's going to change unless people get honest, and that starts with getting "mad as hell." And I think what he's getting at here is "feeling" something, feeling anything passionately again. That's what the experience of job loss is all about. A fresh start. A new horizon. And in particular, the day after you're through being mad, when you start building your life back up again, with a greater sense of who you are and a stronger foundation.

Entrepreneurship and the "Recession Rush"

The launch of's layoff widget yesterday, reminded me of lessons learned from the Gold Rush of 1849: it's more profitable to sell pans & shovels. Those who elected to supply miners reaped the rewards of filling a timely demand. As the notion of a long term recession grows roots in the American psyche, I predict we'll see a bit of a "Recession Rush" to get appropriate products to market.

Here are two of the latest: offers visitors a place to rant anonymously about job loss, track layoffs, and rate employers. The comments are a little snarky for my taste, but the site as a whole is a good concept. It meets a need that I felt while unemployed: a sense of community. One can't help but feel less alone by reading the numerous "layoff stories". At the same time, they are ripe with the fresh cut of pain one feels immediately following a job elimination. I found myself looking for an optimistic anchor on this site, a place to be forward looking, and collaborate to make the most of new beginnings.
Another site that's surfaced is . This site, for me, has a brighter feel to it. It's less snarky and has some really fantastic writers who post useful tips and stories. The postings are original, smart, and take a variety of perspectives into account from spouses of layoff victims to freelancers scraping for work. Plus, they have some regular columns such as "screwed" (news on latest layoff) and Recession Briefing (aggregates the top recession related articles).

Heard of others? About to launch your own "Recession Rush" product? Feel free to post links in the comments below. I'd love to hear what else is out there, or about to arrive on the scene.

And if you've recently been laid off, maybe it's worth considering: are you a layoff entrepreneur? Do you have something valuable to share with others in the same position? Or do you think this recession will make fools of those looking for gold? Only time will tell, but for now it's encouraging to see new products released -- more proof that even in a recession there are opportunities to be found.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is Happy Hour Still Happy?

On Friday I went to a happy hour organized by fellow alums of Georgetown University's Executive Master's in Leadership program. Our program was a cohort of 40 students and we were (still are) very close. In general, this group is a shot of energy. But the last time I saw everyone was in July and since then just about everyone had...laid people off, been laid off, gone on furlough, and/or seen their life savings evaporate. Walking in, I was curious to see just how "happy" the hour would be...

One classmate had to restructure her department and was preparing to take a furlough. Time off without pay is not exactly ideal, but as mentioned in one of my previous posts (Does 10% Reduced Pay = 10% More Time?) there are some advantages. While on furlough, employees are instructed not to check email, come to the office, or conduct anything that could be perceived as "work related activities." In an age when many employees regularly check email through the night and weekend; take laptops and BlackBerrys to the beach; and generally allow themselves to be available 24/7--a mandatory break sounds pretty good to me. The more my classmate talked about it, the more it seemed things weren't all doom and gloom. Plus, she has a life outside of work: she gardens, teaches, travels. She would be able to do more of the things she loved with her time off...even if it meant less pay.

Another classmate had been hit harder. Her husband's work nearly evaporated with the collapse of the banking industry. Meanwhile, her part time job had been eliminated and she was looking for full time work. The more we talked, the more positive aspects of her life emerged. She was teaching a few classes at a university and told me about her latest course, where she had the freedom to use more creative exercises and simulations. The joy that came forth as she described the impact one such exercise had on her class gave me hope that her layoff would put her in a position to continue creating similar experiences and meaningful work.

And then there was one classmate who had been laid off in December. A true role model for networking and getting this done, she was briefing me on her latest creative endeavors and job prospects, when we were interrupted by a phone call. Ten minutes later she was back in the bar and we were celebrating. A prestigious consulting firm had just offered her a job.

If so much hope and optimism surfaced in the stories of classmates most effected by the recession, how about the rest of our cohort? Well, one classmate had raised record amounts of money for her non-profit and was receiving invitations to participate in exclusive conferences around the world. Another classmate had signed a huge client at his agency. A third classmate snagged the lead in a television documentary. A fourth announced she had fulfilled a childhood dream to publish a children's book.

So, is happy hour still happy? I think it is! While there was a little more gloom than usual, everyone had some level of joy, optimism and hope for the future. Opportunities abound, even in a recession. It's a call for all of us to take a "furlough" from work--if not physical than mental--and ask that question we were so good at answering when we were five: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Sunday, February 22, 2009

COBRA Gets Friendlier

If you were laid off after September 1, 2008, COBRA just got friendlier. The stimulus bill will pay 65% of your premiums for the next 9 months. Even if you took a pass on COBRA at the time of layoff, you have a new opportunity to sign up.

Having been unemployed twice in my life, with the option to take COBRA, I'll say this: it's expensive. The first time I was eligible, I was a young, healthy 23 year old and still had to shell out $500+ a month to stay on the plan. Lucky for me, my parents were willing to chip in. If I was laid off today with the same $500 COBRA payment, the government would chip in $350 and I would only have to pay $175...which is still a lot of money while unemployed, but much more reasonable than the full amount.

Then the question becomes: can I buy an individual health insurance plan that will cost even less than the government subsidized COBRA? A quick search on eHealthInsurance yielded a plan "as low as" $93 per month -- it's a PPO with a well known health insurance provider, but the deductible is $1,200 and the office visit copay is $30. This isn't a bad option if you're healthy and unlikely to need to chip into that $1,200 deductible anytime soon. For comparison sake, it would be $82 less per month than my former COBRA payment with government help.

One thing to consider about online health insurance estimates is that an estimate is all it is. Enter more information for a formal quote, and you could see your price skyrocket. If you're someone who uses medical care frequently, you might be better paying COBRA and staying with your current plan (especially if you've already contributed a significant amount to an annual deductible).

The second time I was eligible for COBRA, I went onto my husband's health insurance plan instead. Joining his plan cost more than what I was paying as an employee, but it was much less than I would have paid on COBRA.

Overall, know your options. There's more than one way to get health insurance. If you decide to use COBRA, make sure you get the government contribution. If your former employer hasn't contacted you about the government program, be proactive and give your HR rep a call.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Does 10% Reduced Pay = 10% More Time?

The Chicago Sun Times had an interesting article today by Sandra Guy on companies opting to reduce employee pay rather than conduct layoffs. The article poses the question, is it a better business strategy to retain employees but reduce pay? I can relate to the guy they interviewed, Dustin Hinton, who took a 10% pay cut to keep his job. He would rather work for less if it means retaining his job and being able to provide for his family. Who wouldn't feel the same? What the article doesn't mention, however, is whether Hinton has also received 10% of his time back.

Earlier this year I negotiated a four day work week with my boss, and took a 20% pay cut. Once the deal was made, I fretted over my decision. How does one advocate for a 20% pay cut? What was I thinking?! Three months later, I can safely say that my time is worth that and more for the activities it allows me to do--write, clean, do errands, organize the house...not to mention spend more time with my daughter. As a result, my family can actually relax on the weekend (no laundry, cleaning, or grocery shopping to do...)

My sense is that a reduction in pay accompanied by a reduction in hours would be a wonderful strategy for businesses. It would help them to retain valuable company knowledge (which is lost in a layoff), while also giving employees a break (which could increase morale). What worries me, however, is that companies will reduce pay without reducing hours, reduce 401k benefits and health care...and that, people will get used to living with less and expecting less from their employers.

That's why I'm advocating that if your company has approached you about taking a pay cut, ask them for extra time off in return. Assure them that this will not have a negative impact on your productivity at the office. (In fact, I think I'm more productive as a 4-day employee because there's no time to waste). Plus, if your reduced wages mean you need to take on more work (like Hinton and his wife) than you will want that extra 10% of your time to make up for your loss.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Do you have a Layoff Action Plan?

An article in The Wall Street Journal today reports that employment law specialist Garry Mathiason of Little Mendelson (a firm that handles approximately half of the layoffs in the US) estimates that the "US could lose around three million jobs from January through March".

With that in mind, it's a good time to create a Layoff Action Plan. I didn't see my layoff coming until the morning of the event, so it's wise to be prepared. It's also helpful because while compiling your plan you'll face your fears head on.

You might find that you're more prepared than you think. We managed to reduce our spending and actually save some of my severance. Here are some items to consider:

: Okay, not brain surgery here. You'll need money if you're laid off. Do you have 3-6 months salary saved up? Do you know the amount of the check you would receive from unemployment? Do you know what your company's severance policy is (check your company handbook)?

: Once you've established how much money you'll have while unemployed, it's time to examine your expenses. What's the bare minimum you'll need to get by (rent/mortgage/utilities, car payments, food)? What could you live without temporarily (cable, video rentals, gym membership, take out, maid service)? Do you have student loans? If so, does your loan offer an option to defer or reduce payment while unemployed?

Health Insurance
: As someone who currently manages benefits, I can tell you health insurance is expensive. If you had to pay COBRA, what would it cost you? Remember, you're going to have to pay your contribution plus the contribution your company paid for you while you were employed. It could be anywhere from $150 to $1000 depending on the level of coverage and who's on your plan. A spouse and/or family dramatically raises your rates. Could you join your spouse's plan if you needed to?

Childcare: How flexible is your childcare center? If you wanted to reduce the days your child attends do you know the daily rate (this is often higher than the week rate)? How long would they hold your child's full time spot if you had to temporarily go to part time?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Manager to COO via Layoff

It was a little over a year ago that my boss called me into her office at 9am to deliver the news "your job has been eliminated." Since then, the number of layoffs across the country has steadily increased to the point where no one is truly safe at their company.

My goal in writing this blog is to focus on the positive aspects of a layoff. As it turned out, mine was one of the most transforming experiences of my life. When I started my search, I was an underutilized mid-level project manager. By the end of my search, I was the chief operating officer of a growing non-profit.

Simply put, it would have been impossible for me to get from point A to point B without the layoff in between. A layoff provides a number of job search tools that most people don't have access to while working, including:

Networking: Access to contacts and recommendations from bosses and colleagues who it would have been awkward to ask while still employed.

Time: Finding a job is a job. And you've just been promoted from freelancer to professional. It's your job to meet interesting people for coffee, lunch and drinks; brainstorm dream jobs; and search the Internet in your pajamas all day...

Money: It's the one and only time you will be paid to search for a new job. Between the severance check, unemployment, and savings, most people have some time before they need to consider supplementing with part time work or consulting.

Urgency: Employed people can waste years searching for a new job while clinging tightly to the one they've got. As a new member of the "unemployed", you *must* find a new job and that means you'll find one sooner than your employed counterpart.

For these reasons and more, being laid off can be a once in a lifetime opportunity for personal growth, renewal and promotion. So, if you're newly unemployed, congratulations! This is your first step to getting the job you've always wanted.