If you follow all the advice in the last posting, you should now have a working environment that is conducive to good health and you should know how to avoid some of the common dangers of working from home/at the computer.
What you still need to do as well though, is think about the psychological aspect of your work and the way you’re mentally separating one from the other.
This is where so many people who work from home go wrong. We start out with the best of intentions (set working hours, a separate work phone) but the temptation to work late one night, or to work on a Sunday, will always rear its head once we start getting behind. Problem is, this is habit forming and it creates a bad pattern. This is especially true if you work late on a weekday, as you’ll then have less energy to work again on the next
weekday and that in turn will mean you’re tired and lethargic and unproductive… meaning there’s a good chance you’ll be tempted to work late again. As we’ll see later, sleep should be considered sacred if you work from home. And for everyone for that matter…
What you need to do then is to set yourself strict specific parameters for working and to not work outside of those. This means that you have to start working at a very specific time and end at a very specific time. And if you run over and work looks like it’s going to be late? Then you have to just accept that it’s late. It’s not worth ruining your life to keep a client happy – remember the whole reason we’re working this way in the first place is to live the lifestyle we want.
Of course it’s better that you do also keep your client happy and this is where time management comes in – as well as generally taking the right approach when managing your clients and knowing how to accept work and projects. You also need to put systems in place that will help you to manage a workflow and to become scalable even as an individual. And guess what? That’s what we’ll be looking at in the rest of this write up.
A big challenge as an entrepreneur or as any kind of sole trader is trying to find work. Dry spells are pretty devastating when you have bills to pay and a family telling you to ‘get a real job’ and if you run a service-based business, no orders means no money.
But what’s also a really big challenge is learning to say ‘no’. Learning to turn down clients, or to say ‘you can have the work in a week, I’m busy right now’. We’re afraid to do this because we don’t want to be in that situation where we have no work but as a result, we end up taking on much more than we can chew and working insane hours that prevent us from sleeping. Worst of all, the work you hand in probably won’t be as good as it could be because you’d have been rushed.
So sometimes, you have to be strict and you have to tell your client it will be a few days before you can get work to them. That’s okay – in fact it’s pretty much normal. As long as you tell them up-front how long it will take, you don’t need to feel bad about being just one human. Do your job well and they should normally be able to wait (unless their work is time-sensitive also). If it’s a web design, some SEO, an article… a couple of days likely won’t make much difference to their business plan.
The same goes for turning down work that you really aren’t confident with or that you really don’t want to do. Just tell your client that there are others that will do a better job for less money instead of killing yourself trying to learn a whole new skill set. Be strict about what it is that you do and do that one thing very well. You’ll be happier, life will be simpler and the quality of your output will be higher.
And in fact, when you tell your clients how long it’s going to take, you should actually be pessimistic about it. This is called ‘under promising and over delivering’ and it basically means saying that things will take longer / cost more / be worse and then providing a pleasant surprise. This strategy is great from a business perspective because it gives you the opportunity to impress your client, which leads to a memorably positive interaction that will make them more likely to want to use your services again.
What’s more though, under promising means that if things go wrong and you can’t finish work as quickly as you probably should, you’ll still have time to get your work in on time the next day. It’s a simple strategy that will massively reduce the amount of stress that you find yourself under. And if you’re worried you won’t get as many orders this way, you can always give an ‘expected completion time’ and a ‘promised completion time’ as separate numbers.
Bear in mind that you absolutely cannot rule out the possibility of getting your work in late. There will always be times when things come up unexpectedly – at the very least it’s important to remember that you won’t get any paid sick leave as someone who is self-employed. (That said, you also mustn’t be afraid to occasionally ‘phone in sick’ with clients as again it’s more efficient in the long term).
So sometimes you need to turn down work that you get offered, or just say you’re handing it in late. Other times however, you should turn down entire clients.
That’s because there is very much a thing as a ‘good client’ versus a ‘bad client’. Bad clients are the ones who involve too much ‘communication overhead’ (meaning they e-mail all the time about petty things, ultimately costing you time and money). They’re also the ones who pay late (or not at all) and who are never satisfied with your work. What you’ll find is that some clients fit this description, while others are polite and send the minimum number of e-mails necessary for you to work together. It’s the latter kind you want to work with as it will ultimately save you a lot of time and stress down the line. Again, picking and choosing clients is one of the big advantages when it comes to working for yourself.
Another type of client you probably want to lose, is the type who orders tiny amounts of work. The more clients you have with small orders, the more relationships you need to manage, the more projects you have to order and generally the more stressed you are likely to be. This is called ‘Pareto’s Law’ or the ’80/20′ rule. The idea here is that usually it’s just 20% of your customers who provide about 80% of your yields – and that you should focus on that 20% instead of the other 80.
All this said, you do want to try and avoid a situation where you have all of your eggs in one basket. In other words, if you turn down all your clients and end up with just one, then you’re going to be in a bit of a sticky situation should that one client suddenly quit.
The ideal situation is to try and spread your workload between 3-4 clients. And in terms of income, you should be able to survive relatively well even if you lose two of those clients. The same goes if you’re selling a product from your website, or if you’re selling an app, have multiple apps and multiple products.
It’s even a good idea to have an entirely separate revenue stream. Let’s say you’re a web designer with several big clients. As a designer you might go some lengthy patches where you don’t have any work coming in and as such, you should make sure that you have a monetized website, an app or something else that is bringing in a little extra cash. You could even leave the house some days and offer your services as a fence painter by driving around the neighborhood.
In other words, you need as many revenue streams as possible, you need backup plans and you need contingencies. With all these in place, you’ll be less reliant on steady work and you’ll thus be less tempted to take on more work than you can manage during the busy periods.
Another tip is to use your quieter days to put work in ahead of time. For instance, if you’re a web designer, you can always try designing some unique fonts or some website templates that you can use later on to save yourself time. This way you’ll be able to take on more work later on, without feeling overwhelmed.
While managing all this work, it can be useful to set yourself targets in terms of how much you want to earn. Don’t aim too high but make sure that it’s something you can realistically live off. Depending on the nature of your work, something like $150 a day is a good ‘base rate’.
Having a target like this is a good idea because it allows you to structure everything else accordingly and to decide how much work you’re going to take on and at what point in the week you’re going to do it. At the same time, you can be sure that you’ll be sticking to at least a minimum amount of income without going broke.
Even with a good balance of clients and no unreal expectations, you’ll still likely find that things can get out of hand and you can find yourself stressed. When your client messages you at 8pm on a Friday night saying that the work you did for them isn’t very good… how can you possibly ignore it? Likewise, when it turns out the software update you released to your customers had a major bug in it on Friday night… again, what can you do?
There are a few different systems and tools you can put in place that can help you in any of these situations. If you want to find more of these, then I highly recommend the book ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ from Tim Ferriss which goes into this sort of thing in-depth.
However, the ones supplied below should be just enough to help you significantly reduce your stress working from home so that you can start improving your health and happines.
The first and most straightforward tool/system to use is your e-mail’s auto-responder capability. This allows you to send an automated reply to your clients, customers and business partners whenever they message you after 6pm or on a weekend and this can say something like this:
“Thank you for your message. I’m afraid I will be out of the office until tomorrow at 9am and will be unable to respond until then. If you have a real emergency, then you can contact me on my home phone number at: 00 0 000000. But please don’t call if it can wait until tomorrow. My working hours are between 9am-6pm Monday-Friday.”
This e-mail is perfect because it tells your clients or customers why you haven’t gotten back to them and gives them a means to get in touch if they really are in a dire situation. You should find though that very few people will actually abuse your home number, so you can be safe in the knowledge that you’ll be undisturbed. That said, you can also stop imagining worst-case scenarios.
A virtual assistant is someone who can handle all types of work on your behalf as long as they don’t need to be physically present. Usually these companies/individuals are based in India or in other countries with lower costs of living, so you’ll likely only pay a few dollars for a day’s work. Of
course you get what you pay for to an extent, so don’t expect amazing quality English unless you are willing to pay top dollar.
Either way though, these companies provide work that can include: booking appointments, responding to e-mails, doing research, handling marketing and SEO, proof reading, data entry and much more. You can use a digital assistant then to outsource the boring-but-time consuming aspects of your job, while you focus instead on doing what it is that you do so well. They can also stand-in for you sometimes at the weekend.
Similarly, it never hurts to know a couple of people who can help you out in a crisis. If you have a friend who works online, you can make a pact with them to bail each other out occasionally if you have too much work. You might even be able to offer some aspects of your work to friends interested in making a little extra money on the side!
There are all kinds of different tools you can use online these days to automate your work. One of the very best of these is IFTTT which essentially allows you to link different online tools and social media accounts together. For instance, IFTTT (‘If This, Then That’) can create a system where your Facebook posts are likewise posted to Twitter – this can save you a lot of time in a social media campaign.
But there’s much more besides. You can also use this tool to copy all your Gmail contacts to a Google Drive spreadsheet, or to add Google Calendar appointments to a To Do List. IFTTT and many tools like it can act as force multipliers and save you a lot of time.
A Separate Phone
If you use your mobile for work, then it’s highly advisable to have a separate mobile for your personal life. This way, you can take that phone and drop it in a drawer at the end of the day. Now you won’t be disturbed by e-mails from your clients, or from customers or visitors to your website, because you won’t be aware of them.
All these tools will do a lot to help you spend less time working and to help you ‘switch off’ at the end of the day. Ultimately though, you’re still going to have to ‘trust’ in the fact that you can take time off of work or not respond immediately to an e-mail and this is the hard part. This is also the crucial part though. Until you learn to psychologically let go of work, you’re not going to get the recovery you need to be healthy and to perform optimally. Even if you aren’t getting e-mails, you’ll still find work takes its toll if you’re lying away thinking about how to apologize to that angry e-mail.
The best way to accomplish this is with a CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) technique called ‘hypothesis testing’. Here, you think about the thing you’re afraid to do and you think about what it is that is making you afraid to do it. You’re afraid to ignore e-mails or turn down work because you think your clients will abandon you.
To let go of that fear then, you have to try not responding to e-mails sometimes. Give it a go – respond to the next e-mail you get tomorrow instead of right now and then just apologize for being late. In all likelihood, you’ll find there are no repercussions and as a result, you’ll be much more inclined to do the same thing again next time. Likewise, just try not updating your website for a week and see if it hurts your traffic all that much. Again, probably fine, isn’t it?
Your Personal Life
Most of what we’ve discussed so far has revolved around designing your work to avoid it interfering with your personal life. But for this to be effective it has to work both ways and you have to make sure that your personal life isn’t interfering with work. That in turn, means that you have to be strict when it comes to not taking calls, or meeting with friends during the hours of 9-5. And just as you put your work phone in a drawer in the evenings, you should consider putting your home phone in a drawer while you’re working.
Of course you might decide you want to take advantage of your freedom by seeing friends more. In fact, meeting your friends on their lunch breaks can be a good way to avoid that cabin fever feeling and is always appreciated.
Or maybe you want to work in the morning and then again in the evening so you can spend the afternoon with family. Just make sure that this is pre-planned and that you have a strict cut off point for when your break ends and be consistent with that.
You can obviously give yourself the day off as well if you want to accept an exciting invitation but realize that this is a bigger commitment than it seems. You’ll have to make that work up elsewhere and then it will be hard to get back into your routine. Moreover, if you bend your rules a few times, people will expect you to do it all the time. While it might not feel like it, being a bit strict and unsociable in the short term will actually allow you to spend more time with friends in the long.