I’m 24 and self-employed. It’s pretty surreal, to be honest, and I’m learning a lot about how people view self-employment and some important aspects of it. When I first told people that I was leaving my state job for consulting, a lot of people responded, “So you’ll be working from home?! Lucky!” And honestly, yes. I completely agree. I am blessed to be able to have the freedom to work when I want and where I want. But their reactions made me cringe a little, and I even wanted to defend myself. I wanted people to know I wasn’t lazy! That I would actually be working from home! That I might actually get more done at home than I got done in my cubicle every day, and in less time. I’ve been working from home for a couple months now because of an adjusted schedule I had with the state. I had to learn how to manage my schedule on the one day a week I didn’t go into the office and on the weekends, in order to fit my consulting hours in. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but I realized it worked for me.
Another reaction I thought was interesting was that people were surprised. They acted as if I was climbing Mt. Everest with no training. It’s amazing how many people think they are stuck, that they don’t have a choice. It’s also amazing how many people think things just happen overnight. I didn’t get to this point in a matter of weeks. My two office jobs after college (and actually, college itself) trained me for this and taught me a lot about the working world. Choices I’ve made in the last year led me here, and a lot of it was hard. I want people to know it’s not easy, but it’s also not Mt. Everest. For me it was like a really long beach hike that led me past some difficult inner-obstacles and tested my endurance. Small steps got me here, not gigantic life-altering choices. You have these small choices, too. Everyday.
So while you’re thinking of pajamas, snooze buttons, and not showering until 3pm, I want to shed some light on self-employment with six things I’ve found to be important:
1. You have to manage your time. Time management… I think this is included in every job interview I’ve ever been in. Yet, a lot of us are so bad at it. When you’re a consultant, your time is money. If you don’t get any work done in an hour, you can’t bill for it. But at the state, if I just sat in my cube for an hour it would still count. (I’m not advocating for people to do this, I’m just saying it’s true.) The private industry is a little more cut-throat, focused on production, but you’re still under someone else’s management — not your own. As a consultant, you don’t have a set schedule. You have to create your own. Do you work better in the mornings? Then get up and get going. And don’t get distracted by your snuggly dog who likes to sleep in. It’s great to be able to work when you want, but here’s the kicker: you actually have to do it. There’s no one keeping tabs on you, making sure you get into the office on time and stay until the clock ticks 8 hours.
For me, this works really well. I don’t need anyone managing my time to get work done. At my first job out of college, I was commended for “managing up” (also not advocating this). When I left, my boss told me they had to find someone who could manage multiple projects and themselves to replace me. This is when my eyes opened up — I might be able to do this. I moved on to another cubicle job instead of going to consulting then, but I needed that last cubicle job. I needed to see that I could survive in a new role — tackle a whole new set of skills, communicate with a variety of people, and work independently 98% of the time.
2. You will question your abilities, and you need to know what to do about it. You’re in charge of yourself, remember? So no one is giving you bi-weekly updates about how you’re doing. You’re the expert, and that’s why your clients hired you. Wait, what? I’m not an EXPERT. Yes, you are. They wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t capable of this. Keep going, and know how to do your research. No one is training you. You are a one-stop shop for the skills and products you offer, so practice it, grow in it, and own it. When you deliver a product they want or you help them meet their goals, they will probably say thank you. But it’s definitely not a bi-weekly thing, so get used to cheering yourself on. For me, this meant knowing how I’m wired. I value connection and affirmation is important to me. Since I’m not getting that from a boss or colleagues, I needed to figure out how I could make those two things a part of self-employment. Or what I needed to do to keep myself motivated and connected to my work.
3. Be gracious with yourself. It’s not an easy transition, so give yourself some slack. You’ll make giant to-do lists on pretty notepads because you’re so excited to be out of the cubicle… but even shiny notebooks don’t make work glamorous. And most of the time, you need to tone down your to-do list. Be realistic, pay attention to when you are the most focused, and then build your days around that. The beauty of working when you want to is that you can pay attention to your body and mind, and get the most out of the two! It’s pretty awesome.
4. Making a deadline is really important. Most of you are probably thinking, DUH. But let me tell you how often deadlines got pushed back in the office, how many people were “out” and couldn’t get to it… so we had to wait another week, or two. And everyone had the mentality that it was just how things worked around there. When your clients ask for something and you tell them you’ll deliver it by a certain date, it’s best that you deliver. Your job quite literally depends on it. As a consultant, you are competing for your spot. They hired you for a very specific reason, and there is far less job security in this market. Which brings me to point 5…
5. The job is risky. You have to find your own work, land the contracts, and please your clients so that they will keep you in mind for another project, or pass good words around about you. There’s an uncertainty of how many hours you’ll get in a month, or if the contract will continue. So you have to work your butt off and be kind. Trust me, those two things will get you far.
6. Make time for yourself and your loved ones. This goes along with number one, but it needs its own place because it’s that important. When your time is now money, you will start checking your emails in bed and checking stats while you wait for a table at the restaurant. As a consultant, the line between work and play is thin… but you need to make it bold and clear. If you set aside two hours to get coffee with a friend, honor that commitment and be sure to also set time aside for work so you keep the balance. You can make time for both, but keep them separate.
Some of the work I do involves my mom because we’re on the same team for a project. We have to be clear when we plan to talk about work when we get together, and when one of us needs a break from it. If every time we hung out we talked about work, it would put an unnecessary strain on our relationship. I also have a different schedule than my husband, so just because I can work anytime I want doesn’t mean I should do that. I need to be aware of his needs, communicate when I need to work longer hours, and be sure to unplug when we’re together. I might think, I have no plans this Saturday, I can get lots of hours in! But my husband has that day off and I’d be ignoring him all day. If a deadline is approaching, I communicate that. If it’s not and I can be flexible, I unplug and be present with him. It’s all about communication, figuring out what works for you, and creating clear working hours.
I’m not claiming to know all the tricks of the trade, but those are some things I’ve found important so far. If you’re self-employed as well, I’d love to know some of your thoughts in the comments. If you have questions about self-employment, I’m all ears!