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02 Jul 14

How To Hold Your Business Together When Your Life Is Falling Apart

lifefallingapartA terrifying diagnosis. The break-up of a relationship. An operation, an accident, a death.

Life can knock us for six. When you’re in a job and life throws you a curve ball, there are often certain procedures that help take the strain: maybe you delegate certain projects to colleagues or receive compassionate leave.

But what to do when you’re self-employed? What happens when you feel you have to keep it all together by yourself, but something big is happening in your world?

Over the years of being in business, I’ve witnessed my clients deal with massive life shocks and upheavals – as well as having my own fair share.

Here are four survival tactics I’ve discovered for when life pulls the rug out from underneath you.

1. Separate your business activities: maintenance versus growth

My background is in teaching. When a school teacher goes off sick, the cover teacher is not generally expected to design all-singing, all-dancing lessons. They’re there to keep the classes ticking over and maintain some progression through the curriculum. The classes are typically more textbook-based, involve simple exercises or even watching videos.

What are the bare-bone essential activities that will keep your business ticking over? When the proverbial hits the fan, switch to this mode in your business.

This is the mode you can also use during holidays or when you’re unwell. It probably means you only reply to the most essential email and ignore the rest, trusting people will forgive you. It means your exciting plans to change your website header or set up a Pinterest account get put on the back-burner.

By reducing to bare-bones, you keep your business alive whilst maintaining your sanity and honouring your need to retreat. This is the time to pause big growth projects and instead just keep your business alive so that when life calms down (and it will, it will, it will), you’ve got something left to grow.

2. Get very clear on who and what matters most

Your paying clients are the life-blood of your business. When your world tips on its head, focus any shred of business energy on them. They’re your priority, so that you can maintain the profitability of your venture. A close second come your new inquiries; if necessary, respond simply to acknowledge receipt and ask for a little time to respond properly. Be attentive yet still give yourself breathing room.

Here’s what doesn’t make your priority list: requests on your time from people who aren’t paying clients and who aren’t direct inquiries. People who want to collaborate, people who want some quick free advice, people who want you to retweet their article. Some of these might be wonderful activities to engage with when you’re back in growth mode, but right now you’re in survival mode.

Remember: email requests are just that: requests, not demands. You don’t have to answer any of them. You’re not a public service. You’re a business with paying clients and if someone isn’t paying you, they don’t own a piece of your time.

And the clients who are paying you? They might actually expect less of you than you think. Many of us tend to over-give and make ourselves too important or indispensable; often clients are hugely compassionate and are more than happy to give you the space and time you need.

3. Get unsocial (and more truly social)

Rain on a windowWhen life is wobbly, you might like to withdraw from social media. Here’s my stance: My purpose in being on social media is to connect and share positivity and so when I’m not in that space, I’d rather not share at all. I might still remain functional, posting a blog post or link to a webinar, but it’s not part of my business mission to share with everyone what’s happening in my private life. (Those close to me will spot when I’ve gone quiet online and know that all is not well in my world.)

I love social media and it’s not my source of comfort. I get that from my daily practice, and from my partner and friends in “real” life. The cuddles, the love, the empathy happen in person and by phone; we meet, we snuggle, I cry on them.

You might find you can later translate your experience into something useful for your Tribe. You can draw an amazing learning point out of the rubble if you wish, but do so retrospectively. If you try to do it in the moment, often your community or clients will feel the need to come and save you – and that’s not their job.

4. Cry your heart out

Screaming: When your life is falling apartI’m a big fan of crying. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s cleansing. And it’s often absolutely necessary.

During one particularly rough patch, I developed the tactic of lying on my bedroom floor between client sessions and howling. I’d come off the phone from one person and in the 15 minute break before the next, I’d release a sound that was primal, guttural, angry, despairing.

Then, a few minutes before the phone rang again, I’d pull it together with a deep, full breath, knowing I had another valve coming up in 60 minutes when I could let it all out again.

And here’s the secret: work can become your sanctuary. Your distraction. Your saving grace. You can throw yourself into being fully present for a client, fully engaged in writing, or designing, or creating, and for an hour (or however long it takes) you can forget about your life being in pieces. In coaching, we call this “self-management”: putting your own stuff aside so you can be there for your client. And the magic is: not only does it serve your client, it serves you too.

Life can sometimes be entirely shitty. It can feel like it smacks us round the face, grabs our guts and rips us apart – but it doesn’t need to rip your business apart too.

So, go into maintenance mode, focus on who and what matters most, get unsocial (and more truly social) and cry out that beautiful, precious heart of yours. Your business will be waiting for you on the other side – and it also may just help you get through.

Over to you

What gets you through the toughest times? I’d love to know the mindset shifts and practical actions you’ve taken – or are taking right now – to keep your business together while life is falling apart. Others will, I’m sure, benefit greatly from hearing your experiences, so leave a comment below.


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© Corrina Gordon-Barnes 2014

Top photo credit: uriolat / Foter / Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Second photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller / Foter / Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Bottom photo credit: crosathorian / Foter / Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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  1. Jo | Mentor Mothership + Bootcamp blogstress

    Hey Corrina, this post is so well timed. I have gone through a few personal traumas during my self employment and a family emergency is happening right now, and going back to basics is so needed.

    1. Helen Rebello

      In that case Jo, I very much appreciate you replying to my tweets in the last week or so since I ‘found’ you! How entirely appropriate that you also hang out here in Corrina’s world!

  2. Danielle Anderson

    Fortunately, I haven’t felt like my life is falling apart in the time that I’ve been running my business. The last time I had to deal with a crisis like this, I was still in the protective arms of HR policies in the corporate world. This post is a good reminder of how to plan for those unplanned moments though.

    Your mention of ‘maintenance mode’ really resonated with me. I’m about to embark on a 5-week program that will take me away from my business while I deliver coaching to the program participants. I need to put 100% of my focus on them, and there are simply tasks that I will not have the time to schedule in. I’ve decided to hire a VA to help me with some of these tasks so that business can tick over and there is someone to handle enquiries in my absence.

    Identifying who we can turn to for this type of support is important – and doing so before we actually need the support is wise.

    Thanks for your post Corrina!

    1. Corrina

      Danielle – It’s such a blessing to have support like this, and I love that you’re motivated by a desire to pour 100% focus onto your clients.

    1. Kamini

      Hi Frances

      Just took a quick look and love what you are doing… I’ve just recently launched my business and will be offering retreats, what you are offering is very inspiring 🙂

  3. Yvona Brandstatterova

    What a fab blog, couldn’t have come at a better time, thank you!

  4. Nela

    Thank you for addressing this very important topic. Fortunately I haven’t been in a situation where this happened, and my dips into anxiety and depression were actually business-related. But the strategies you describe are applicable no matter what happens, if you just need a break from everything to clear your head.

    I’m also a huge fan of releasing through crying! I know a lot of people don’t get it, but for me expressing my emotions honestly is a must otherwise I get numbed out, and sometimes you just need to lie under the blanket and have a good cry.

    1. Corrina

      Nela – I’d be interested to hear more about your anxiety/depression – I’m working on a blog idea about these aspects on the self-employment path – please drop me a line (via Contact above) if you’d be interested in sharing your story with me.

  5. Lucinda

    I’m just coming out of a “bare bones” phase, not due to a crisis, but early pregnancy meant 24 hour nausea and exhaustion, and it was all I could manage. So I saw clients who booked with me, but not a lot more. I can’t say it didn’t impact the amount of business (and income) I got, but at least I kept going and now I’m more back to normal I can pick up the rest piece by piece. It’s lovely to now be able to explain why I’ve been a bit quiet, and there may be a retrospective learning I can share with my pregnant clients on how to use massage to support you during that phase.

    1. Corrina

      Lucinda – All best wishes to you during your pregnancy 🙂

  6. Judy Heminsley

    Naps! They are good for regaining energy and strength so you can move forward in a difficult situation when you’ve reached the point where you don’t think you can go on.

  7. Clare Kerrison

    Thank you Corrina – compassionate and practical advice worth bookmarking and re-reading. Your empathy with the self-employed business journey is always a relief to read!

    @judy I love naps!


    1. Corrina

      Clare – So good to hear this, and may I just say (again!) that your blog titles are always SO compelling and clickable!

  8. Melanie Taylor

    In bad times I have tried to remind myself that the things I can no longer be bothered with, the daily routines and practices I seem to have neither the time nor energy for – like getting out for a walk every morning, cooking myself nourishing meals, writing my journal – are the very things I need to sustain me.

    1. Corrina

      Melanie – Ahhhhh. Deep, deep sigh YES.

  9. Joanna

    Thank you for addressing a topic I rarely see talked about for the self-employed. I was taken by surprise by this issue recently – I had expected to get ill or have something practical to deal with, but somehow I didn’t expect ‘life’ to get in the way!

    I actually found social media to be a great support. I didn’t interact much, but gently watching what was going on, where the good and the bad of real life was happening elsewhere, allowed me to get out of my own head for a short period of time. With all my friends at their day jobs, unavailable for shoulder crying, I found it very useful to occasionally get sucked in by other interesting things going on ‘out there’ that allowed me a short break from myself.

    1. Corrina

      Joanna – Such an interesting point, thank you for sharing.

      I remember once feeling really ill with a nasty cold and going along to a Five Rhythms class anyway because the teacher said I could lie in the corner and just watch; I got all wrapped up in a blanket and smiled the whole way through, it was so nurturing to be in that passive observer role, watching life happen joyfully around me even though I wasn’t participating – exactly as you say.

  10. Hannah

    Hey Corrina,

    Thanks for addressing this topic. I love your distinction between maintenance and growth mode—very helpful to think about!

    I’m a big fan of crying, naps like Judy suggested, and breaking up my daily routine too. I find that getting out of the flat, going for a long walk, or even taking my emails and bare-bones maintenance tasks to a different environment helps me feel more focused so I can get them done quicker and move onto taking care of myself and the situation at hand.

  11. Tiina

    Thank you Corrina for a very helpful reminder of what is important and what can wait.
    It is so easy to go into panic mode from thinking ‘I still have to do it all even though my life is falling apart! ‘and then be even less capable of dealing with the business (and life).

  12. Jo McHale

    Corrina, I particularly resonated with Point#2: getting clear about who and what matters most – but from a slightly different perspective. Years ago, when my husband was terminally ill, it was he who mattered most. And if I was to support him, I had to make myself matter too. So I learned to ask for help.

  13. Miriam Linderman

    Corrina – Thanks for the topic. There is no way to avoid what life brings and good to be reminded that it does get better. Absolutely.

    I loved the reminder to focus on clients – because they are precious – and then let go of what’s not so essential. A good plan at any time.

  14. Lisa McLoughlin

    I am in maintenance mode right now…. Thanks for this posting x

    1. Corrina

      Lisa – Love and blessings to you. ♥

  15. Elaine Scaife

    This is such a great post Corrina, on a subject that is not very often addressed. Really appreciate you posting it – thank you xx

  16. Kay Burden

    Great blog, thank you 🙂

    As already mentioned in previous comments, came at the right time too.

  17. Helen Rebello

    You always write such timely posts in such a succinct and perfect way! I’m currently in maintenance mode too – not because of any major crises, but just because I have been pulled in too many directions by too many people all needing support at the same time – and I recognised that I needed to just Stop, Regroup, Re-align, Reboot and Reassess! I find the only way to get clarity for myself in times of challenge is to retreat and find space and quiet – even if it is just for 5 minutes here and there.. I agree with not airing your ‘stuff’ online, but also using it to inform your life and work in future once you’re through the other side.

    When I was forced to take lots of time out for unexpected major surgery, I actually used it to completely overhaul my business model (once I was fit enough of course!), and I see it as a major positive turning point in my life as it gave me space and clarity. Many ‘disastrous’ events turn out to be hugely positive for most people – so hold onto that thought if you’re currently doing it tough 🙂

  18. Patrick Donohoe

    I’ve only just this week come out of such a phase. My young son was in hospital with suspected pneumonia and it was very tricky to find any energy for my business. I knew I had to give it some time otherwise when the crisis was over I’d find myself in a bit of a pickle with no new work. So I pulled it together for short chunks of the day when my son was sleeping and wrote to current clients to let them know I’d need to reschedule (they were ALL understanding) and to new enquiries to let them know I’d get back them. It’s been lovely this week to find that I’ve been able to pick everything back up where I left it. All the clients I’d contacted have been able to reschedule. And my son is fine too!

    1. Corrina

      Patrick – Thanks so much for sharing this example, very encouraging.

  19. Karen J

    How on earth did you get a picture of me, Corrina?? Been feeling exactly like all that for the last week!
    “Silent retreat” on most of it, because of overwhelm, but just mentioning it, even without a public dissection is helping bring my head and my heart back together…

    Thank you for “reading my mail” 🙂

  20. Julia Barnickle

    Great article, Corrina. Like others, I’m currently in “maintenance mode” for health reasons, so I’m going to focus on creating e-courses that people can access online and that won’t take up so much of my time and energy once they’re created.

  21. Carol Fenner

    Thank you Corrina, this is an interesting subject; also as it seems to be resonating more with me today. When my son was dangerously ill last year I continued to work 3 days a week for a local authority as an Adviser and also see clients from my work premises at home. My business has been chugging along for quite a few years without me really putting that much into it.

    After being given one days compassionate leave and having to use all my allocated annual leave to visit Addenbrookes it began to finally dawn on me that this role was not supporting me; it was draining me. And having to continue to see clients and worry about targets, and then worry about getting to hospital during visiting time every day began to have its toll. So I took some time away from the ‘staff’ role to just ‘be’. I was still seeing private clients, but did not find that stressful in any way.

    At the beginning of the year I returned to the routine but my heart had completely left it. Also I wanted to be more at home with my son during his recuperation. So I resigned. I am now prioritising what feels good for me to do. This is something I have never done. I also heartily recommend a power nap when ‘stuff’ becomes overwhelming. Today has been a bit of one of those days so there must be something in the air! Also I would agree that social media can be incredibly supportive and can help me to get things into perspective. Sorry for the ramble! 🙂

    1. Corrina

      Carol – Having been a regular frequenter of Addenbrookes these past few months, I can picture you there – life within the hospital compound, and life outside. And I feel great peace in your words, “So I resigned”. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Bruna Tamai

    thank you Corrina for this article. As other people mentioned too, this is a very important and sensitive aspect of being self employed. So far I have been lucky not to have had to go through a hard time, but…you never know what life throws at you.
    However, self preservation and the things that most matter to you are the most important at the end of the day.
    thanks for addressing this

  23. Sebastian

    Muy buenos consejos, “maitenance Mode” esta buenisimo, lo voy a aplicar, muy bueno el articulo.

  24. Mary Tracy

    I think there’s huge value in sharing how hard things are WHEN they are hard.
    Otherwise we end up appearing always as the person with all the answers, which can be intimidating.

    And if people in your tribe or community feel the need to “save you”, that’s kind of their problem. You can set up boundaries to let them know that you appreciate their kindness, but you don’t want their saving.
    I’ve seen it done, and it can be a very graceful thing.

  25. Kamini

    Hey Corrina 🙂

    This is a territory I know only too well: over a period of 7 years I experienced all of the traumas you mentioned and more! And I was self employed…

    I agree with all of your strategies especially the ‘crying’ one. Bottling up emotion is the worst thing you can do for your emotional health and physical well being. I found my car (parked somewhere remote) a good place as sometimes I felt inhibited by the possibility of the neighbours hearing! Writing and drawing is also a good way to release and express emotions. I find when I’m unable to contain an emotion or can’t manage how I’m feeling and it gets overwhelming then pouring it out on a page helps ‘get it out’ and creates a safe container for it to be held outside of oneself.

    I could go on! I feel another blog post coming….

    Sending hugs x

  26. Anne Hornsblow

    Thanks Corrina, this is a great inspiring blog.
    I have helped clients with our free diary to get their customers to schedule their calls so that they could be in control yet remain opened to business and keep business coming in. Contact me if you feel it could help you, it’s free.

  27. Lesley Durke

    Thank you Corrina for a very useful and informative blog as always. I am a yoga teacher and yoga sports coach so my business involves taking classes and private lessons where I physically need to be able to stand in front of a class and teach/ demonstrate. Up until 2 months ago I had a part-time job as well as my business but have now taken the plunge and work totally for myself. Things have been going well (thanks in part to the inspiration I received from your book). One of the things that concerns me relates to what will happen if I physically cannot teach as the business takings are not sufficient to enable me to pay for someone to stand in for me and still have an income. Does anyone have any advice or experience they are willing to offer/ share?

    1. Karen J

      Not sure how this could be applied to yoga, Leslie, but since your concern seems to be with a “well down the road, maybe(!)” issue, your sub-conscious creativity can work on it for years, if you’d like…

      My brother-in-law was a fencing coach, and as his body cooperated less and less with what he wanted it to do, his students put together a “stool” (highly modified) so he could still model the moves and talk them through katas, without having to be completely on his feet for the whole lesson.
      They started with a kitchen stool, cut down the front legs a bit so the seat was tilted forward, and added wheels so he could simulate the back-n-forth and side-to-side parries and lunges.
      He was delighted, and they got 2 more years of excellent training and support!

  28. Monica Bignelli

    I’m from the generation where crying was not appreciated so it’s not easy for me to do so now in response to crisis. Instead I find it helps to exploit my natural curiosity and make it a more intellectual, learning event. Example: when I was new to England and alone here, I broke my right arm in 3 places. It was one long adventure to navigate the NHS and figure out how to survive for 6 months with one arm….but deeply rewarding as I joined a psychological study where people shared their experiences of inhabiting a changed body. Now I am grateful for the experience and it has proved to me once again that I can survive anything life throws at me.

  29. Karen J

    🙂 I just took a “nap” that turned out to be 2-1/2 hours!
    The crying at the start only lasted about 15 seconds, but that release always helps, too.
    I think it’s finally admitting that life sucks (bad!) right now is where the real relief comes from.

    1. Karen J

      I wrote that last night – the nap was from 6 to 8:30pm-ish… and thought I’d posted it, but I guess not (must’ve been more out of it than I recognized, eh?

  30. Ani

    Thank you for this post Corrina. My dad had a brainstem stroke 8 months ago which has left him with ‘locked in syndrome’ it is devastating beyond what I ever imagined could be. I miss his voice and his touch so much. The stroke happened just as my first book was published and my promotion plans ended overnight. I’m just now venturing forth back into my business yet still feeling vulnerable and hurt-y inside about my dad. Your tips are insightful and I’ll hold them as I take the next steps. Thank you x

    1. Corrina

      So much love to you and your family, Ani. ♥

  31. Kate Olphert

    Echoing all the other comments above, how do you do it??
    This has been a mind blowingly helpful post to me. Totally timely empathy and such valuable advice when right now my brain has turned to mush due to what life has thrown at me . If I didn’t already receive everything possible from you I’d be hitting that sign up button now. Thank you Corrina.

    1. Corrina

      Kate – So much love to you. Life can throw such curve balls, huh? Take care of yourself and lean into all the loving support around you. ♥

  32. Ann Brown

    Thankyou for this post Corrina – so helpful!
    I’ve just had a big shock that’s knocked me for six (the day after I came to your meet up on 10th July my Dad was rushed into hospital and he died a week later)
    Of course I found myself numb with grief and shock, but I’ve found some peace and resolution by doing lots of crying, and also my daily prayer and connection with Source – to ask in my heart what I’m really needing, and then to receive that directly. That’s so powerful for me – and I’m sure shortens the healing process.
    Business wise I’m definitely in maintenance mode right now 🙂

    1. Corrina

      So much love to you and your family, Ann ♥

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