Managing Your Self: Set Office Hours

This installment is late.  Mea culpa, I bow in the dust.  But I had someone paying me for a lot of my time, and that has to come first.  Welcome to my world.

I’m going to tell on myself.  I did not have office hours for the first eighteen months that I was self-employed.  Oh, I made a living, sure.   But it was inconsistent, insecure, feast or famine nonsense with little in the way of a cushion.  I decided that what I really needed to do was set office hours.  It worked so consistently and dramatically that I had not only to have specific hours to work, but strict guidelines about when to stop because of all the paying work.  This is more important than you think.  A couple of twelve hour days taught me that real quick, let me tell you what!  No matter how you love your work, getting brain-fried and ignoring your friends and family is not a good idea.  Yes, yes, work hard!  But let work time be work time and make sure that there is specific time that is not work time!  Corral it, set good boundaries around it, or I promise it will take over your life.

Why Office Hours Work.

I really did think that office hours were kind of missing the point of being self-employed!  Ahh, the freedom!  Oh, how nifty to be able to go work out in the middle of the morning and take as long as I wanted for a swim instead of cramming it into my lunch hour.  Ahh, what bliss to realize that I could spend a Sunday afternoon writing for money rather than dreading coming into the office on Monday morning.   What fun to be able to take your laptop on travel with you and still work!

You know what?  There’s some truth to it.  There’s nothing in the world wrong with setting your schedule to suit yourself.  My office hours are not a standard 8-5.  I do sometimes work when the Spirit moves me outside of office hours, and I really do work while traveling.  I’ll take the train rather than drive somewhere just because it’s easier for me to work while traveling rather than waste the time driving.

The problem comes in not because the freedom is bad.  It’s because it’s really easy to fool yourself.  “Oh, I’ll finish that up tonight!” you’ll say to yourself, or, “I’ve got all day to finish that!”

Anyone who has ever been a homemaker knows the dangers of, “I’ve got all day.”   In fact, the Sidetracked Home Executives use the IGAD! acronym as a telling point about how dangerous this really is.  “I’ve got all day to deal with that,” translates very quickly into “IGAD! A Deadline I might miss!”

I do know of people who don’t have office hours and make it work.  Most of them are far more self-disciplined than I am about deadlines and less prone to procrastination.  They also usually have other controls in place about work – a target income level they have to meet before they’ll permit themselves to slack, or a set of tasks they must complete before they allow themselves to call it a day.  If it works for you, great, but be ruthless with yourself when assessing this.  If you’re not putting in six hours a day of honest work, you’re really slacking.

I caution against slacking, but you know, if you find yourself slacking that much, either you’ve got someone supporting you or you’ll be looking for a Real Job pretty fast.  I consider myself something of a slacker, and I willingly pull down some hours that have astonished me.

Rule of thumb for the self-employed: it’s illegal for anyone to ask you to work as long or as hard as you’ll be working for yourself. — Holly Lisle

When I read the referenced article[1], I’m gonna have to admit I figured her to have an overdeveloped sense of Calvinist martyrdom and inverted pride.  Well, she was right, I was wrong.  Chances are good that you’re going to have to guard against overwork rather than otherwise.  I was cranking out 1,000 words a day on a terrible and unpublishable novel and holding down a Real Job.  It was no strain.  Boy, did I get fooled when I really did take the leap from the lion’s mouth!

If you think you’re putting in ten hours a day of work, I highly recommend you get some  tracking software for yourself and assessing that honestly.   I can recommend ClockingIT and RescueTime.  ClockingIT is more for billable hours and RescueTime is for an honest assessment about what sites you visit and how much time you spend in what applications.  I would have been indignant to have RescueTime on my machine with an employer, but my present employer is a real slave driver.  <grin>

You can fool yourself that screwing around is work. That’s a very short road to both poverty and burnout.  Just because you’re at a computer or in your office doesn’t mean you’re working.  Be sure all that work you’re doing is genuinely productive work.  I have guidelines stricter than most commercial places of business about websites I can visit or what I can be doing during office hours.  I’ll talk about this later in the What’s Work section, but it’s an important concept.

When I face this in all honesty, I know that for me, being strict about office hours is what brings in the cash.   I encourage you to try office hours first.  The important thing is that you create some workday structure and control for self-management.

How Many Hours should you work?

Oh my, if that isn’t a “that depends”.  If you’re not putting in 35-60 hours on your business, you’re not going to make it.   Yes, I’ve read the 4-Hour Work Week.   Mr. Ferris is being incredibly misleading about how he lives.  He’s only counting the time spent on stuff that is directly-paying.  He works more than four hours a week just doing interviews and networking.  That image of the rock star lifestyle is part of his product. He has to document what he does (and I promise that takes a few hours, even if he is hiring some schmuck like me to pound out the words), come up with stuff he thinks will be interesting to his readers, harass people to meet up with him and blog about how cool he is, and so on.  If you think self-promotion isn’t work, you don’t understand how the gig works.   By his rubber ruler, my very busiest week was about 20 hours and I’ve plenty of weeks where I spend less than that on directly-paying stuff.  I promise you I work more than 20 hours a week even on weeks I spend at the beach!

I’ll deal more with this when we talk about setting prices.  But you’re not going to have every hour of your work day be for directly-paying clients.

What About Breaks?

Yes, for heaven’s sake, take breaks.  I know of one freelancer who tries to get up at least once an hour, so that she doesn’t feel chained to her work.  I, personally, take a whole hour for lunch.  That’s my time to eat, screw around with social networking sites, whatever I want to do that’s not work.

On the subject of lunch, one of my hobbies is making Bento — cute little Japanese lunches in small boxes that are healthy and aesthetically-pleasing.  I generally make myself one, ensuring that I’ll eat at least one healthy meal a day, and take a break.  They’re so cute and pretty, it’s hard not to make an event of it.    Snacking all day at first is the bane of the new freelancer.  This makes me not want to.

You do want some sort of break in your work day to have a little something to eat, reorient yourself and relax before you dive back in to your work.  This is the time to have a meal with friends, take a walk, or otherwise refresh yourself for the rest of your work day.

Where is Your Office?

Where should your office be?

Because my office is really my laptop, I don’t bother with a specific “work only” space.  I have four places I usually work.   On the left is my writin’ chair.  This is far and away the most common place for me to work.  It’s in the living room, and is considered a “classic” no-no.   I would agree a living room would be bad if it’s a public place where you can’t get any privacy.  I’m usually alone all day, so it works for me.  Note the privacy bit. We’ll be getting back to that.

I work there frequently because it gets plenty of sun, it’s comfortable and my office hours are over when the kids get home from school, anyway.  This isn’t to say I don’t work after school.  I do.  But I save administrative tasks and other things that do not require intense concentration for those times.

Experts also recommend against having an office in your bedroom.  My writing desk is in my bedroom and that’s where I’m presently writing this.  I work there sometimes, but I tend not to work there every day, as I’ll start to feel as if I am trapped in a single place after awhile.  I mean, I already spend at least seven hours a day there sleeping!

I mentioned earlier that I sometimes work from bed if I’m trying to give myself a reward or motivate myself.   I don’t do this often.  Yeah, I know that looks comfy. But it would be terrible on my back to do it, and since I make a habit of watching Doctor Who and streaming Netflix movies just in that position, it’s just not got the “serious work” feel to it.   Hence using it as a carrot when I really need to motivate myself.  It’s kind of my version of “casual Friday.”  It’s also where I work if I was stupid (as I was recently) and managed my time so badly that an all-nighter was necessary.  I try very hard not to do that.

The fourth place I work is my “Jungle Room”.  It’s a room in my house that’s sunny, filled with plants and has the wood stove.  In the wintertime, this is great for chasing away that cold, dead feeling of winter and being warm.  I live in Northern New England, so warmth, sun and living things can be a nice feeling.  However, things are not set up in there to be an easy-to-manage workspace, so I usually only do it when I’ve shivvered too much for one week and want to be by a warm fire.

I discuss all these things not because I’m going to discourage you from having an office.  Honestly?  If I had a specific room in my house with a door that closed that I could use for one, I would in a heartbeat.  But in terms of productivity, you need to decide for yourself what’s going to work.  Being able to give myself a change of scene frequently is what works for me. If a certain workspace starts feeling a little stale, I move.  I have a laptop.  I can do that.  Some people find that having an office puts them into “work” mode better than office hours and dressing for work put together!   The principle here is to find what gets your mind into “serious work” mode and do that.  Yes, it seems like there are a lot of externals that “shouldn’t” matter.  All I can say is that some millenia of civilization has taught us that ritual drives mindset, and it’s not bad to make it work for you.  For me, it seems to be the ritual of “setting up shop” somewhere.

Don’t underestimate the “carrot” of being able to work in a special place.  For you, it might be a coffee shop with an Internet connection – always a popular choice and a great one if you’re sick of being alone!

Whatever you do for an office, be comfortable. I am unusually careful to create an ambiance that reminds me that I’m doing this to savor life, not spend my life in a working grind.  If scented candles or incense turns your crank, there aren’t any office regulations forbidding it any more.  Have your coffee or tea in the good china if you have it, play music that focuses your brain, and don’t lock yourself away in a forgotten, cluttered afterthought of a room.  Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do these things “when you can afford it”.  Putting away clutter costs nothing, and few of the things I’ve mentioned are an extra expense.

The Bad News About Office Hours

A lot of people want to work from home so that they can take care of small children while they’re working.   Thing is, at the end of the day, it’s still a job and to get paid, you have to put out product.

I’m not saying it can’t work. There are things you can do while you’re looking after a small child that can make money.  I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that anything that requires concentration for a long period of time isn’t it!  Programming, writing, graphic art… If you need to think uninterrupted, don’t fool yourself that you’ll get anywhere near enough done – either from responding to RFPs or actual paying work while attending to the children. I speak from the experience of a failed attempt to do so.

I can’t even begin to count the number of people who get into writing because they think they can do it when their kids are small and avoid the cost of daycare.  The ones that make this happen are usually people who don’t need much sleep, are night owls and work when the children are asleep.  Even with older children, you might have the habit of keeping an ear out.  My first summer as a freelancer was a real eye opener about this, and I have a teenaged reclusive introvert as my main parenting responsibility!

The take-away here is that unless you’re doing work a child can help you with, such as many sorts of farming, you really do need time alone to be able to concentrate and work.  I’ve created websites while the children played, and while it can be done, you’re not focused and efficient enough to make it a business.

[1] And by the way, I find her writing advice good, even if I’ve no talent at fiction.

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