Luke Johnson
Author:
Luke Johnson
Date:
March 27, 2020
Reading time:
20 minutes
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How to build structure and health into your days that will help you to live well and work productively through the many seasons of solo-work.

When 2020 began, none of us imagined we'd be reconfiguring our lives as much as we have these past weeks! The sudden need to work from home can be disorienting as people try to figure out new ways to operate that allow them to accomplish what they did before.

Admittedly, my house has experienced very little upheaval in all of this, since my wife and I have worked from home for more than 5 years now, and we already school our son at home. But we realize we are in a rather slim minority.

Working from home certainly has its benefits: A less abrupt start to the day, no commute to worry about, fewer distractions, flexible schedule, and catching more of your kids' days.

In those ways, working from home can feel pretty luxurious! But as weeks turn to months and months to years, working from home presents some significant challenges, too.

Working on your own or working for yourself is lonely work.

Especially if the majority of your tasks are the kind that don't involve direct interaction with people, such as design, coding, video production, project management, office admin, and the like.

Because it is just you and the work, one day is like another, one week rolls into the next, one month just like the last. What might have felt like luxury at the start can begin to feel like isolation — even if you're an introvert, like me.

Thankfully, there are lots of ways to build structure and health into your days that will help you to live well and work productively through the many seasons of solo-work.

Here are my “Top Ten”:

1. Get yourself some dedicated space and dedicated time.

If some of your loved ones are home on a regular basis, you will need to communicate with your family about the time and space you need to work. It's going to be a partnership.

In my case, I have a dedicated work space at home. It isn't large or glamorous — it's just an extra bedroom that is set up as an office.

Having a dedicated work space is good, but the reason it works is that I also have dedicated time.

This requires our whole family's participation. My young kids know that when I'm in the office, I should not be disturbed unless something really important is going on. This boundary is respected because it is championed by my wife. She regularly reminds the kids, “We have to let Papa work now. Remember? He is working hard to make the money!”

With dedicated space and dedicated time, you're free to get down to business!

2. Tell your brain it is time for work.

When you have a boss or when you work away from home, structure is imposed on you from the outside. You're expected to show up at a certain time and place, and so you wake up with enough time to get yourself ready and to get yourself there. Shifts and work hours are laid out for you. All the “when” and “where” is settled. But when you work alone, you must supply this structure for yourself.

Structure is important. Your well-being depends on it. Working from the couch might sound fun, but it's a bad idea for several reasons:

  • It's confusing to your family. If you look like you're “laying around,” they will interact with you as if that is the case. But if you are trying to accomplish something there on the couch, you might become irritated by pestering questions or noise, and you'll have caused friction where there needn't be any.
  • Your back and your neck will hate you if you spend hours on end in a hunched or reclined position. You'll be able to work longer and happier and more productively with proper posture.
  • If you start using “rest areas” as places where you get work done, you'll be messing with your brain and emotions. Separating “work” from “rest” is important so that you can indicate to your brain when work is over. Otherwise, you'll start to feel like work hangs over you all the time.
  • Humans need routine in order to thrive. The act of departing a rest space and heading into a work space is good for your motivation and state of mind. Entering your office says to your brain, “It's time to focus now.”

In my case, I am very motivated to get my day started early, because there is a firm limit on how much work I can accomplish in a day. We have young kids, and my wife works most evenings. As soon as we arrive to suppertime, my work day is officially and firmly over. At that point, I need to put work away, enjoy supper with my family, and take care of bedtime.

So if I don't wake up early and get a good start to the day, I have single-handedly shrunken my day from the outset.

3. Structure your work with the rule of 20-30-50

In running my own business, I had to get used to this idea early on: Only half my time will be billable.

There is more to running a business than getting projects done and getting paid. You have to spend time managing your bank account, business licenses, subscriptions, tax filings, memberships, and marketing your business. And you have to devote some time to finding new leads, writing proposals, and taking sales meetings. And in the midst of that, you have to support ongoing clients, and then actually find the time to get the new projects done!

Admin, Sales, and Billable Work — those are the three “super-categories” that power a business.

I recommend spending 20% of your time on Admin, 30% on Sales, and 50% on Billable Work. If you work a 40-hour week, that will mean:

  • 8 hours for attending to your accounts, administrative responsibilities, and marketing efforts.
  • 12 hours finding new leads, meeting with potential clients, and writing proposals.
  • 20 hours working on active projects.

Of course, not every week will fit cleanly into this 20-30-50 arrangement. But if you make this your goal, you will always know where your business is at, and you will avoid feeling like you are whipping around the inside of a tornado. Your clients, your family, and your own state of mind will thank you.

4. Set aside some time for learning and refueling.

When your task list is long, project deadlines loom large. But deadlines shouldn't set the terms for how you spend every scrap of your time. This is hard! As a solo-operator, sometimes I end up managing 5 or more projects simultaneously. And when that happens, the only thought in my mind is: Get the work done. Everything else can wait.

The problem is, whenever I've fallen into that track and consumed all my time for the sake of project deadlines, I end up exhausted. No boss should ever expect an employee to spin like a cyclone for weeks on end, but yet how often have I expected this of myself? As business owners and freelancers, we have to be good bosses to ourselves.

Every moment, without thought, we inhale and exhale. It is just as important to breathe in as it is to breathe out. The same thing goes for work. If I only pour out, I will dry up. I also need to pour back into myself.

We need to keep growing in order to stay encouraged. There is no greater treatment for Imposter Syndrome than to experience the growth of your own expertise. And that won't happen without a time commitment to your own growth.

As Jeremy Keith once said,

“You need to read in order to write. You need to listen in order to speak.”

Luckily, the internet is bursting at the seams with resources for professional development. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Treehouse (teamtreehouse.com) is my go-to place for sharpening web skills. At $25 USD per month, Treehouse is an affordable way to learn about design, development, user experience, the basics of business management, and more. Their courses combine instructional videos, quizzes, and code challenges to help you internalize what you are learning. Their instructors are excellent, and worth following elsewhere. My Twitter feed is peppered with Treehouse teachers.
  • The Boagworld UX Show (boagworld.com) is the longest-running podcast about the web, user experience, and design. Paul Boag is a prolific leader and speaker in the web industry, and he and Marcus Lillington share from their deep experience on an enormous range of topics. They also interview a wide selection of top-level professionals across the industry, so by listening to the podcast regularly, you'll start to find your feet in the wider industry by learning “who's who”. Paul's blog, newsletter, and master class are also great sources for continuing learning.
  • A Book Apart (abookapart.com) is a great place to find good books that will help you to deepen your knowledge.

5. Do some things not related to your work, too. Because you're a human, not a productivity machine.

Beyond “industry learning”, I find it regenerating to spend some time doing things completely unrelated to my profession.

I've played guitar since I was in high school, and it's fun to grab my La Patrie classical guitar and make up some goofy songs with my kids.

Or, as part of the care of my church's youth group, I'll spend some time entrenched in ecclesiastical literature and create some liturgical or group-study resources.

Or I'll dig into some ancient Greek or Hebrew for a while. Nothing quiets the mind like trying to sight-translate a 3,000 year old text!

6. Meet in person whenever you can.

Sending an email is easy and might feel more efficient than making plans to meet in person, but so much more is shared when you meet face to face. A chance to joke, to notice a person's style or if they are suffering from some ailment, the opportunity to buy someone a cup of coffee or to receive one in turn…

Facial expressions and body language have a way of softening interactions with a potential client that no carefully-crafted email could ever achieve. As “creators of things”, we are serving real people, and meeting in person is a good reminder of that.

And it is often in conversation that the best ideas arrive. Countless times I have had certain plans forming in my mind as I've started thinking about a project, but getting to hear a person describe their situation in their own words brings things to light that would never have occurred to me.

The best thing we can do as creators is to nurture our empathy, our ability to understand and share in another person's experience. Spending time with a real human gives our empathy muscles a chance to grow. And you'll like your life more.

7. Find some good colleagues and grow a network of skilled friends.

One of the funnest parts of freelancing is coming across fellow-freelancers. In my local area, I know all sorts: filmmakers, voice-over artists, photographers, graphic designers, IT consultants, marketers, social media experts, developers… There are a lot of us out there nowadays.

And one of the great freelancing joys is simply to sit across a coffee shop table from a freelancer friend and share about ideas, challenges, strategies, recent projects, and just to laugh about the difficult or incredulous bits of this type of life.

There is always something to be learned from someone else's experience. And it just feels good to know another person truly understands the pressures you face, or can fully appreciate the triumphs.

The other benefit is: you know who to call when you have a project that exceeds your own particular skillset. Some years ago I made the choice to specialize. I would focus my efforts on user experience development, interface design, and the “code” side of things. I like to grow deep roots in the things I do, and being part of a network of skilled friends means I don't have to try to be a jack of all trades. If a project needs photography, you can bet I'm going to contact Jen. If someone needs video, I'll give Tony or Jeremy a call. If it's specialized graphic design, I'll see if Kaitlyn is available. Or quite often I've been invited into some projects Scott is working on.

Just because you work from home doesn't mean you have to work alone.

8. Don't neglect your health.

Much of my work happens in front of a computer. Coding, writing, designing, troubleshooting, even meeting — all mediated through a keyboard, a trackpad, and a screen.

My wife is a kinesiologist, and she frequently reminds me that human bodies are meant for movement, not for the sedentary, sack-of-potatoes work-style that is so common to digital professionals.

It's important to eat food that replenishes your brain and body. And it's important to get up and move around once in a while. Having a kinesiologist for a wife is handy, because she sets me up with an exercise plan I can make part of my work day. A little splash of endorphins is a good way to pump some life into the afternoon when I might otherwise start to waste time due to fatigue.

In the middle of a pandemic, we can't make regular use of rinks, gyms, or even parks, so it's a good idea to find ways to get some exercise at home. (Talk to my wife if you want some help with that!)

9. Be patient with yourself because down-days are inevitable.

Much like the stock market, you can't expect yourself to be in good spirits and on the rise all the time. Some days, despite your best efforts, life will come crashing down around you. This doesn't mean you're a failure, or that you're not good at what you do. It just means you're a person.

An onslaught of emails, piles of projects, and demanding deadlines can be intimidating enough. But sometimes outside factors throw considerable weight around, such as relational difficulty, sickness, loss of a loved one, unexpected expenses, or a plan that ended in disappointment.

In times like those, working alone can be dreary, and can leave you feeling fatigued and unequal to the challenge — sometimes for whole days or weeks at a time. For myself, I have found that the best thing I can do is to break down the intimidating tasks into the smallest possible pieces, and to simply make a start.

Some wisdom from the Desert Fathers

One of my favourite stories comes from the Desert Fathers of centuries ago:

There was a man who had a plot of land, but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles. So he said to his son, “Go and weed the ground.” The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles, and despaired. He said to himself, “How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all of that?” So he lay down and went to sleep for several days.

His father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all. “Why have you done nothing?” he asked.

The son replied, “Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I became overwhelmed and knew not where to begin. I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.”

His father replied, “My son, behold the weeds right next to your foot. Start there.” So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded.

Starting is the hardest part. The biggest obstacle is willing myself to begin. But once I have begun, I find that remaining in motion is a lot easier than starting from standstill.

Strategies for breaking out of the doldrums

Here are some of the ways I get myself back on track after being thrown a few curve balls.

  1. If you are feeling very low, maybe what you need most is to take a day off to forget about work and responsibilities, and simply rest. Give yourself permission to take the day, and do things that allow you to recoup. Turn your phone off. Get some good sleep. Read some fiction. Go for a walk. Play with your kids. Make some food. Declare it a Freelancing Saturday and put work entirely out of your mind, knowing that tomorrow you will begin anew.
  2. Talk to the people in your life. Your spouse, a good friend, a colleague — someone who knows you well. Sometimes just airing your thoughts will help put them into perspective.
  3. Make a list of everything you need to do, and break each task down to the smallest parts possible.
  4. Mark off tasks you can complete in 2 minutes or less, and do them — right now.
  5. Use a Pomodoro timer to attack your task list in short sprints of activity. 25 minutes of focused work, 5 minute break. Repeat. It's low commitment, and you will start to build up your momentum again.
  6. Do something to remind yourself that you really are good at what you do. One time recently, a client called me looking for direction for their marketing efforts. Part way into the call, I was listening to the words coming out of my own mouth, and thinking, “Hey, this is good advice. I actually know a lot about this, don't I?” And by the end of the call, the embers of self-confidence were beginning to smoulder again.

10. Close the loops.

This has been a game-changer for me. I take some time every week (Fridays usually) and run through a structured list of everything that runs my life to make sure I'm not forgetting anything.

My email inbox, all my work systems, my calendar, bank accounts, invoicing, all the stuff that piles up on my desk or accumulates on my whiteboard — everything. Once a week, take stock of everything. You will end your week feeling in control and in the know. I recommend this to you in the strongest possible terms!

I shared recently how I close my loops. See the full post here.

Just because you work from home doesn't mean you have to work alone.

If you are working from home, either by choice or by circumstances beyond your control, I'd love to hear what is working for you and what isn't. With proper care, the work-from-home life can be deeply rewarding.

As the Finnish president said recently, what we need isn't “social distancing”, but “physical distancing” along with “mental proximity”. Especially nowadays, we're all in this together. I'd love to hear from you!