I've been laid off twice and went to work for myself once too, which can be almost the same as being unemployed if there's no work coming in. I know the fear of waking up in the morning with no income coming in and knowing that chances are good there won't be any income rolling through the door by 5 p.m. either. So I developed a set of rules for myself that helped me manage the panic and kept me focused on my goals. Every one of them has been battle-tested by rejection, failure and long quiet days in an empty house. So, here are my rules for the unemployed.
Cleanliness is the first rule of survival in the bush. A friend of mine was kidnapped by Angolan rebels in the early 1980s while reporting on the wars in Africa. The morning after he was kidnapped, he got up and started to putter around rather aimlessly. He noticed that two BBC reporters who had also been kidnapped were up washing, shaving and dressing as if they were going to work. When he asked them what they were doing, they replied, "Cleanliness is the first rule of survival in the bush." They were right. Get up every day at a regular time, and shower, shave and dress as though you were going to work. Don't skimp on yourself.
Stay connected. Whether you are unemployed or working independently, make sure you interact with other people. Call friends on the phone, visit them at work, go to lunch. One friend of mine created a monthly lunch club, in which the members shared tips, helped one another with marketing themselves and generally shared their experiences. People are important to your survival, so stay connected.
Educate yourself. All of the experts say the same thing: Use downtime to brush up on and build up your skills. Take a class if you can, and buy books. And remember that these things may be tax deductible as professional development expenses. You'll build up your skill set and meet other people who may have job tips and leads that could help in your search.
Tell your story. When you go on an interview or sit down to write that cover letter, use examples of how you put your knowledge to work and how you used it to solve problems and create new products, methods or applications. Show the potential employer what you can do as best you can, with specific examples. Don't just say you have Web development skills; tell the story of how you redesigned your last company's Web site.
No television, and no computer or video games. Do yourself a favor and leave the television and the computer games off during the workday. Oprah isn't going to help you find a job, and winning at Civilization III isn't a skill that will impress many employers.
Consider contracting. Take that three-month job redesigning a Web site. When you're done, you'll have real experience to put on your resume, and you'll have a real story to tell your next employer. Also, remember that this contract job will often lead to the next one. Many people fear working for themselves because of tax issues, but don't be afraid. Instead, visit an accountant and get the facts. Being self-employed isn't as scary as you think.
Keep up the insurance. Health insurance, disability insurance and dental insurance. You may not have a job, but you still need a safety net. And if you have lost your insurance and you're in a jam, many local insurance agents can help you find a quick fallback, such as an Access card or other plan.
Do something new. My brother was sightseeing in Washington with his son and wife last September when the plane hit the Pentagon. He packed them up and drove straight back to Boston. The next day, he went to work in search of a little normalcy only to find that the company had gone out of business while he was on vacation. No job, no severance, no nothing. It took him until the first week in April to find another IT job, but while he was looking, he kept himself busy doing all kinds of things he had always wanted to try, including acting in a community theater production. He had a great time, and that was exactly what he needed.
Don't beat yourself up, or anyone else. Layoffs hit everyone, and in most cases, there was probably nothing you could have done to prevent it. Trying to figure out who to blame would require more understanding of the forces of free-market capitalism than I have. And blaming yourself isn't worth it either. The best thing to do is to let go as best you can and concentrate on learning new things, trying new things and becoming a new person.
And remember, you will find a job. The first time I was laid off, I woke up the next morning and realized that I would be all right. How did I know this? Because I knew that the prospect that I would be able to do nothing but go fishing every day for the rest of my life was too much to hope for. Sooner or later, I would wake up on a Monday morning and have to go to work.