What's Really Work During Office Hours?

What’s Work?

When you set your office hours, decide what’s work and what’s not.  Please, for the love of Ceiling Cat, don’t limit what you consider work to paying contracts and marketing.  I know it sounds weird. But look at the policies of some successful companies who encourage their employees to take a certain percentage of their time to develop a project that just takes their fancy.   (Google leaps to mind. Gmail and several other Google applications are a result of this policy).  You want to make sure that you “count” time to be creative, to brainstorm, to experiment, get messy and make mistakes.  Just be careful not to fool yourself about what those projects are.    For instance, this book is one of those projects for me.  It counts as work.  If I’ve finished what I intend to do on paying contracts, have finished answering my quota of RFPs and have done my bookkeeping, this is what I work on during my office hours.

So, how do you decide what’s “real” work and what’s screwing around?  Ultimately, you’re going to have to make a choice.  Sex blogs?  That’s a no-brainer, right?  Well, I know of one entrepreneur for whom sex blogs would most certainly be time well-spent professionally!   What it boils down to is, “Is this really in my field?”

I’m a writer who will work on some of the most amazing ranges of things, so this can get fuzzy.  I’ve written on everything from Red Pandas to how to flirt.  I may be called upon to write about almost anything at almost any time.  So, does surfing Wikipedia count?

For me, no.  While my ‘Satible Curtiosity is a boon to professional development, I’ve chosen not to allow surfing for information randomly during office hours.  Oh, I have a ball with it afterwards (under the “learn how to learn” principle).  If I can’t envision a “product” for it within an hour or two, it’s screwing around rather than working.   Does this mean I might turn rants, irritations, debates and curiosities into actual useful material?   Well, where do you think this course came from?

Depending on your field, you may find that you spend less professional time than you intended on directly paying contracts.  For me?  I spend an average of 45% of my working day on directly-paying material.   That’s pretty much par for the course in my field.  If it drops below that, I know my sales and marketing needs work.  If it goes above 60%, I need to re-assess how many contracts I’m accepting.    That sounds really cool and all, but it’s actually a lot more stressful than not enough work.  You won’t believe me until it happens to you, but trust me, it’s true.

This isn’t something you can look at as a daily, or even weekly thing.  I’m talking month to month.  There are weeks when I have bugger all to do for a client, then weeks where I spend all my office hours on directly-paying material.  While you really ought to keep track from day to day, you don’t want your evaluation granularity to be smaller than a month.

This does help you set your rates, though.   My bills are such that I have to bring in at least what I did as an administrative assistant.    But only about half of the hours I spend working directly pay for that.  However, I charge more than twice per hour what I earned as an admin, even though I bid by the job, so it’s not necessarily immediately obvious to a client.  Yes, I’ll be giving a good hourly rate formula to you in a later lesson.

Train Yourself to Work in Weird Places

While routine is good, and it’s a good idea to make it work for you, Life Happens.  Kids get sick, spouses change work schedules so that alone time you thought you had is no more.  You’ll want to make sure that whatever you do, you don’t get so wedded to your routine or work ritual that when that ritual can’t happen, you can’t work.

This is another one of those “speaking from experience” moments.  When I was working on my first novel, I was living in Virginia with my husband.  I had a word count goal for each week day.  We lived in a one-bedroom apartment and my desk was in the living room back to back with his drafting table.  My ritual was to get up, have my mug of espresso, and write all morning until I’d hit my word count.   I would dread “workdays” that he’d take off, or wouldn’t go in because of snow.[1] I couldn’t get anything done.  His very presence was a distraction.

Don’t do this to yourself.  If you’re going to make a living, especially doing creative work, the last thing you can afford to indulge in is artistic temperament.    If you can train yourself to be able to work under a variety of conditions, it’s a good idea.

I really do, no kidding, write when I’m traveling.  In fact, before I started work on this paragraph, I was working on a formatting job for a client – all while riding on a passenger train to visit a friend[2].

Why should you do this?  Well, for one, you don’t want to develop an artistic temperament, even if you are an artist.  Two, you’re going to be working your rear off.  You’re not going to be getting paid vacations, so it’s better to accept that, and learn to work during dead time like travel time, or under unusual circumstances.  Otherwise, you’ll be chained to your house, or you need to raise your hourly rate to save for vacations.

Set Daily Goals

Setting goals is really important to being self-employed.  You’ll need it at first to start getting the contracts, and then to complete them.  You’ll need the goals to have some direction, especially in the beginning when you aren’t bringing in a lot of cash.  You’ll need them as you go along to make sure that you’re making appropriate use of your best commodity — your time and brain.

Setting yearly and monthly goals are a good way to help you plan your daily goals.  In fact, I’d say that the daily to-do list without a general idea of what you want to accomplish over time is foolish.  While there is a certain level of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks in this gig, you don’t want to be too scattered!

This was my goal list for October 2007

  • Prep to teach a kick-ass class in MS Word
  • Get three new clients
  • Make my word count every day on Stoneflower (A novel I was writing)
  • Find one more project or sideline that could bring in $400 in a month.
  • (non-income generating) Keep up on my Poly writing. I might go ahead and do a quarterly ‘zine, but I’m going to play that for a break-even thing and do it for fun. Can’t everything be about money, nor do I want it to be.

This led to a to-do list for a day early in October 2007:

  • Write 500 Words on Stoneflower
  • Have meeting with neighbor across the street to help her make a Spanish class brochure (I count this as client work because I’ll be getting about $200 worth of Spanish lessons for my son).
  • Bid on one project on iFreelance
  • Brainstorm 10 short story ideas for writing contest due Dec 3.
  • Do a brainstorm on the Polyamory ‘Zine to speculate format, how often it will be released, costs to make/send out, etc.
  • Bid on an eLance project
  • Brainstorm some topics for the Polyamorous Misanthrope column that will include more than a one-line topic.
  • Spend an hour brainstorming things that I think I can do that will bring in $100/week.
  • Study the MS Word manuals for the class I am teaching

Now interestingly enough, not everything panned out.  You know what?  Everything won’t.  That’s okay. You want to try lots of different things.  Stoneflower is only about 65,000 words long so far and far from done, though it’s properly plotted, I never did do the poly ‘Zine, I didn’t win the writing contest, and the woman who was going to teach the Spanish lessons never did get back to me.

And yet, I am still in business.  Those daily bids on the freelance boards did pan out eventually, but even that took time.

The important part is that you’re consistently thinking about ways to bring in business, how to refine your business, what new products and/or services you might want to offer, and what works for you.  Your list won’t be the same as mine, as your goals and abilities are different.  That’s perfectly all right!  What is important is that you’re in a stage of constant refinement with it.

[1] This was Virginia.  Virginians tend not to go out in the snow, and no wonder.  It’s amazing the difference a plow, some sand and good snow removal makes!

[2] It would be a rare trip, indeed, that I could not use the time as enough working hours to pay for the trip!

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.

Manage Your Self: The Daily Routine

Probably the biggest challenge to being self-employed is self-management, especially when it comes to time.  The harried housewife understands this problem quite well.  I am here to tell you that you can learn a lot from many of the household management techniques for housewives, as well as other techniques to put your brain in the “work” frame of mind.

It’s a non-trivial problem.  When you work from home, you’re moving from a situation where you’re leaving the office worries at the office and merging your work and home lives.  One of my self-employed friends commented to me when I started that she didn’t think there was a single day when she did not work. She wasn’t saying it as a lament, but merely a comment.  She understands well the importance of recreation and living purposefully.  On sunny summer days, she gets up early and works hard so she can “play hookey” and go splash in the river all afternoon.  But for those of us who get sucked into things or worse, have procrastination problems, learning some formal time management skills is essential.

One of the dangers, especially if you love your work, is that you’ll neglect other parts of your life for it.  Having a passion for what you do is great.  I encourage it.  But that same passion should be applied to your family, your friends, your loved ones.  People are important.  Don’t let your family only interact with you with your face bathed in the light of a computer screen[1].

The Daily Routine

None of these things are magic money-making machines.  But what they are is good self-care that will get you geared up to take the day seriously.  Do not underestimate good self-care when it comes to motivating yourself.

Routine is also important.  Not necessarily that there needs to be a daily grind. In fact, if you want to work for yourself, chances are good that a daily grind is about on the level of your “want list” as bad breath and excessive toe hair.   But routine?  You want to make habit work for you rather than against you, so you’re going to want to be very, very sure that you’ve established habits that will help you.

I joke a great deal that I’m a bum, that I don’t have a job, things like that.  The thing is, while that’s a fun joke to make, you really do have to work and work pretty hard to make a living without a job.  It’s just that it’s more fun to me than working in an office, so it feels like play in some ways.

Get up at a Consistent Time

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” – Benjamin Franklin

Remember me talking about working on the balcony as the sun rises over the ocean.  Clearly, I am a morning person if I’m enjoying a sunrise on vacation!  I’m not going to tell you that you need to be up before the sun just because that’s what I do.  The advantage of early rising isn’t actually the point.  It’s a proxy for other behaviors that accompany the apparent success of the early bird.

Being an early bird isn’t always an advantage.  My father, from whom I inherited my morning tendencies, is usually in his office before most people are rolling out of bed.  Most of his clients, however, are about three time zones to the west and are not morning people themselves.  His day is almost done before they even hit the office.  They often want to discuss matters with him many hours after he’s put in a good, solid working day.   He has to structure his day to accommodate this or all he does is work.

The so-called early bird advantages are really a set of behaviors that are simply things we see more often in the early riser.  The early bird tends to be notorious for three things: working out, eating breakfast, and getting dressed and ready for the day right away.  These behaviors are indeed behaviors that encourage success.  If you’re a night owl and one of the attractions of being self-employed is that you don’t need to be up before ten, more power to you.  But even so, if you do not get up and hit the day like an early bird would, this program won’t work.   Be your rising time “oh dark thirty” or “Oh yeah, it’s nearly noon”, make it consistent and have a start the day routine!

Work Out

I’m not talking about becoming an athlete here.  Screw getting skinny or any of that vain nonsense.  It’s not what I mean.  I mean, get up and get the blood pumping to your brain within fifteen or twenty minutes of getting up.

I didn’t used to believe this was a big deal.   But, in the past two years, I’ve noticed a link between being willing to work out early in the morning and how many contracts I get.  I’m not talking about working out so hard that you hurt yourself or throw up.  None of that crap.  I just mean that you need to get red in the face and breathe hard for half an hour every morning.  No biggie.  Whatever it takes to do that is your call.   Fitness levels vary.  My father, who also works from home, uses an exercise bike.  I swim.  I know people who like to take a walk, run or swing a sledgehammer.  It doesn’t matter what, so much as it is that you do.

Regular moderate exercise has several qualities that make it good for the home-based worker.   It’s a mood enhancer, first and foremost.  To make being self-employed work, you do have to have the sort of d’Artagnan quality of charging into a challenge with a merry jest and your sword swinging.  But that attitude can be hard to keep up after weeks of no contracts, or a difficult client!  Exercise is great for the attitude adjustment.

Regular exercise keeps your energy levels up and regulates your sleep.  You do want something that’s going to ensure that you conk out hard each night, as getting used to the ups and downs of being self-employed can be hell on someone prone to wake at night and worry.  You want to be tired and sleep at night!

I was going to claim the next as anecdotal evidence, that exercise improves cognitive function[2], but it turns out that there have been real, peer-reviewed scientific studies that back this up.  Regular moderate exercise helps you think better.  For those of you whose office is your laptop, you’re probably selling THINK.  Make sure you can brane good.

For those of you who go to the gym to work out, it also provides a certain necessary level of human contact.  Yes, even the crankiest of introverts does need human contact.   Yes, I’m going to dedicate a passage to dealing with isolation, don’t worry!

Let’s face it, if you’re working from home, chances are good that your job is both sedentary and solitary.  It’s not unusual to pack on a few pounds when you start working at home, what with the nearness to the fridge and the lack of communal reference to what you’re doing.  Of considerably greater importance, it’s also not unusual to find your physical fitness taking a nosedive.   I’ll use myself as an example.  I used to take the bus to my office job, ensuring about a mile walk total every day.  I also was an administrative assistant on a college campus.  That meant I walked to run errands pretty frequently. I also worked on the third floor of a building with no elevators.  Those three factors forced a certain amount of activity that went bye-bye in favor of a maximum of a twenty foot walk to my computer.

What’s worse is that if you have the temperament at all to work for yourself, you’re going to find that you’ll lack the self-discipline to stop yourself from working a series of twelve hour days until you drive yourself a little nuts.  If you’re a knowledge worker, this means you’ll be sitting on your butt quite often.  For myself, I lived forty years without once having a backache.  I had my first some fifteen months into being self-employed after a series of twelve-hour days and eschewing exercise and instead whimpering about working too hard.  Don’t do that to yourself.  Get some exercise.

Eat Breakfast

Yeah, yeah, I know.  You’re a special snowflake that doesn’t eat in the mornings because of your delicate widdle system.  Have a damn banana after your workout and be done with it.  You will notice a positive difference if you try this.  I’m not saying you need something fancy here.  Though, if you’re working out of the home, you might be like me and want to whip up a veggie-stuffed omelet or a bowl of really good pinhead oats.  But don’t try to work on an empty stomach.  You’ve been fasting for nine or so hours and you need fuel to concentrate on your work.

Besides which, if you worked out first, you’re probably going to be hungry[3].

I’m not going to lecture about specifics of diet.  If you’re over 15, you’ve probably got a decent idea of how to eat to maximize your own mental and physical potential.  So, do that.  You’re a grown-up, so you can handle it.  If you eat or drink stuff that breaks your think, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I personally, take it a step further and prepare a cute little lunch in a Japanese box (called a bento) for my lunch break, so that I am ensured at least two moderately healthy meals a day.   It actually does wind up helping concentration.

Get Dressed for the office

Some work from home franchises require that you get dressed as if you’re going to an office – right down to your shoes.  It really can help you take your work seriously, and can be a sign to you that it’s work time!  If this sounds like FlyLady, it’s because that’s where I first encountered the concept.  You can’t get more into self-management than being a housewife!

For your own business, it’s a good idea to set a dress code for yourself.  No, I’m serious.  It doesn’t have to be a suit and tie, though there are those who are successfully self-employed who do exactly that!  What you need is to set some standards for your office hours.  I know of an artist who puts on a smock when it’s time for work.  Yes, it’s an old dress shirt with a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon painted on the back, but it’s his professional garb and means it’s work time.  These cues really do help.

Figart Consulting’s dress code is as follows:  Clothes must be clean and neat with no holes.  Ratty sweats are not acceptable, clean ones are okay. Hair must be brushed (I have quite a mane), but makeup is optional when not out at a meeting.  Figart Consulting considers shoes optional, but since the main offices are in Northern New England, slippers are often worn.

I know it sounds goofy to speak of a one-man shop in terms of company policy, but it does help get you in the mindset of thinking appropriately about these issues.  I’m not gonna claim I’ve never worked in my underwear or jammies or whatever.  I have sometimes.  For me, I use it as a motivational technique, rather like Casual Friday or a way to break a temptation to procrastinate.  “If you get right on this, you can work in your jammies in bed today!”  But it’s not a habit, nor should it be.  You need to take work time seriously.

[1] This is a problem I still work on.  I love what I do and get sucked in.  But, I’d hate to blink and find out I don’t know my family, you know?

[2] At least, the words flow better when I’ve had a good swim that morning.  Hence the anecdotal bit.

[3] This may be a slight bias due to my chosen cardio. I swim.  Swimmers are notoriously starved after a workout.  Well-known fact, honest!

Work From Home Course: Some General Principles

When deciding on what to do to generate income, I’ll offer the following suggestions:

  • Services tend to have a better hourly rate than goods.

A lot of people get hung up on an hourly rate.  Beyond making sure you can support yourself working a reasonable number of hours (no more than 50), I don’t get tied up in a knot about it.  However, if it’s important to you, it’s important to keep in mind.  I do earn considerably more per paid hour on direct client work than I ever did in any other job.  But I almost never have a full work week of directly paying work.  Few people who are self-employed do, unless they’ve become employers themselves.  I can’t teach you much about that, as I’m moving Heaven and Earth to stay a one-man shop.  But later chapters are going to deal with the ratio of paying work v. non-paying work.

  • If you can sell something more than once, do it.

Classic example would be a magazine article.  You sell first serial rights to the piece, then it’s yours to flog around in other place.  Short story anthologies where the story originally appeared in a magazine are another good example.

If you develop a course, certainly try to teach it more than once!

  • The less you can invest in materials, the better.

Keep your overhead down.  There are things you will want to spend plenty of money on, sure.  You want your tools to be as good as you need them to be.  But don’t be too seduced by the shiny.  No one gadget is going to be the Perfect Tool to Make You Rich. You were born with that one.  It’s between your ears.

There’s a difference between the shiny nifty gadget and the useful tool to do the job.   Learn that.  I could theoretically do my job on a dial-up Internet connection, but it would be like trying to cut wood with a blunt saw.  The high-speed Internet connection isn’t a nifty gadget, but a genuine tool.   A netbook, as cool as it would be to have a computer I could tuck into my purse, is just a shiny gadget since I’d have to have a more powerful computer for some of my work, anyway[1].

  • If you know something useful and can be engaging, teaching classes are a great way to generate some income.

People like to learn whether or not they’re autodidacts.  Whether it’s how to sew, how to do something specific on a computer or how to assemble food as art, there are probably people who want to learn how to do it.  If you create a once-a-week course in something, your local community center might be willing to offer it.   While not necessarily an enormous money-maker, it’s cheap advertising.  It gets your name and business out there, and associated in people’s minds with fun, usefulness or both.  It also combats the natural isolation of being self-employed without an office to go to.  Never underestimate that!

  • Put your life experiences to good use.

Everyone has life experience.  Yes, even you!  You may think you’ve lived a completely ordinary, pedestrian life.  I’ll let you in on a little secret:  Most lives feel that way when you’re taking it a day at a time.  Rock stars spend more time waiting on tour buses, or practicing music than they do performing, you know.  You and your life is a unique perspective and you’ve got genuine value to offer, so start looking for it!

Exercise: I Done Did This!

Okay, time for another exercise!

I’d like you to spend some time thinking about everything you’ve done in your life.  Screw the Seriously Impressive stuff.  What have you done that’s normal and pedestrian as well as what’s impressive?  We so often undercut the value of the stuff we see as normal and pedestrian, when it turns out people are willing to pay you for it!   For me, a good example would be writing a blog.  My God, talk about dailyness at its peak!  Yet, I really do make a fair portion of my income writing blog entries on the most amazing range of subjects.

So, sit down and make a list of at least fifty things you’ve done — earned a Girl Scout badge, written to your Congressman, made a meal for twenty people, volunteered at your church (list what you did), made a martini…  It doesn’t matter as long as you hit fifty items.

We’ll be building on this later on.  But the principle and the though pattern that I really want you to grok, and I mean drink it down into your soul, is that you’ve done useful things that people need and really will pay you to do!

And be prepared next week for a very long series on self-management.  It’s the second most important lesson you’ll learn.  (The first is to be willing to ask people to pay you to do stuff!)

[1] Though if everyone reading this wants to club together and buy me a netbook, I wouldn’t say no to it…

Work From Home Course: MOAR Necessary sK1lZ

Necessary sK1lZ: Learn How to Learn

This is a biggie.    To be able to make a living without a job, not only do you have to be able to think outside the box, but know that what was outside of the box a week ago has just found a bigger box!  You will need to be able to have the confidence that you can learn new skills relatively easily and well.

I strongly recommend practicing learning new things on a regular basis.  Take classes as often as you can.  If you have a ferret brain, this is your chance to let it go wild.  You can pick anything you want to know how to do.  Learn to knit, learn to make bouillabaisse, learn how to program in LOLcode, learn how to install plumbing or the history of kimono-making in Heian Japan.  For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, don’t waste your time trying to decide if this is a useful thing to learn.  If you become fascinated with the effects of left nostril inhalers on modern culture, go for it and dive in!   You may or may not ever use it professionally, but keeping your mind flexible is crucial.

I’m only 40, so I’m hardly a Wise Old Woman, but I’ve been around enough to have learned that time spent learning something almost always pays off at some point.

Necessary sK1lZ: Administrivia

Remember when I said one of the things I’m good at is systems building.  That’s true.  It’s a strength, but when it comes to self-managing, it’s also a terrible weakness[1].  I’d much rather plan out a system than deal with its execution.  My favorite moment in writing a new piece is to open my word processor to outline view and write the outline for the it.  Visualizing the flow of the work is all kinds of fun.  As much fun as planning is, and as necessary as it is, it is also necessary not to get bogged down.

That said, there are administrative tasks that are absolutely necessary to running a business or organization.  It’s why a competent administrative assistant[2] never starves.

Now, if you’re going to be a one-man shop, you probably won’t want to be hiring an employee.  That’s okay to a degree.  But, since we’re talking sK1lZ, I have to ask, do you know how to:

  • Choose a business form? If not, talk to an accountant or your local small business association.
  • Set up a file system? It should be limited to one file drawer when you start out.  If it’s more than that, you’ve got something too complex that you won’t use.  I will answer one email from you about this if you need advice.
  • Do taxes? Plenty of self-employed people just suck it up and hire an accountant.  I cannot in good conscience advise you do to otherwise.
  • Choose what business equipment is right for you? This is really going to vary depending on what you do.  I’m a writer.  I could work from a smartphone if I absolutely had to.  In practice, it’s a laptop with a wireless connection.  When you start working for yourself and deciding what goods and services you’ll offer, take into account.

Many people tend to develop their own Baker Street Irregulars gang of “go to” people when they want to make sure they know what they need in a particular category.   Most of those same people are Irregulars for their friends, too.  It evens out and is useful.  Being a knowledge junkie, as well as being willing to pass on bits of what you know (barring giving away competitive secrets.  And I assure you I’m actually not here) is a good thing to do in working for yourself.

[1] It often seems to me that weaknesses wind up being out of proportion strengths.  Since I have no sense of proportion at all…  Well, you get the point.

[2] I actually dislike the term “Administrative Assistant” because these days the admin does the job that was truly what a secretary did back when we started using names like “Secretary of State”.   The name for the copy and file person was “clerk”.

Necessary sK1Lz: Sales and Marketing

No, no, don’t run and panic.  I’m not asking you to turn into Leisure Suit Larry here, nor am I saying that you have to learn to schmooze and be manipulative. You don’t. I’m a cranky misanthrope who hates too much contact with people and I manage it, so you who are probably a nice person who finds human company pleasant can do okay.

The point a lot of people miss, and it’s an easy one to do, is that sales is not about convincing people to do what they don’t want to do.  That’s nasty and manipulative.  You don’t have to be nasty and manipulative to sell well – rather the opposite.

The point of selling is to find out what the potential clients wants and provide that.  When you learn to sell, you’re going to be able to show the potential client why you are the best person to help them out with what they want and need!  Real sales is actually about being helpful.  You can feel okay with being helpful, right?

It also means you have to believe in your product or service.  Make sure you’re utterly convinced of the value of what you do.  Don’t ever say, “Oh I just clean houses,” or  “Well, the writing I do is trivial.”  A clean house is valuable, and not everyone in the world can write clearly.  These are needed skills!  If you have a skill or a talent, you can be sure that there are millions of people in the world who don’t have it, but do need the fruits of it.  Value that; show your potential client that it’s valuable.  Many people will agree, and be willing to buy it.

It’s not Personal, It’s Just Business

While you’re learning to sell, another thing you’ll need to get your head wrapped around is that “No” is almost never personal.   I’m not gonna say rejection is fun, but being told “No” in a business situation is not a personal rejection of you as a human being.  Be willing to blow that off.

It’s partially a numbers game.  Depending on your field, you may get “no” between ten and one hundred times before you get “yes”.   For individual marketing, such as responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs in contractor parlance), a ten to one ratio of nos to yeses isn’t too shabby.  For a series of cold calls or a direct mailer, you’re looking at more like a ratio of one hundred to one.

Exercise: Practice Asking

Okay, here’s another exercise for you.   If you want to be self-employed, you’re definitely going to have to learn to be assertive.  You may find it difficult to believe, but just the habit of asking for what you want may make the difference between success and failure in being self-employed.  I know it sounds goofy, but it’s true.

For the next week, practice asking for stuff.  It doesn’t matter what, just ask.  I do want to caution you that there’s a difference between asking and demanding.  Just ask. “Please” is always good and smiles accessorize great with most requests.  Ask if you can get a discount on something in a store.  Ask someone in your household to take out the trash.  Ask if you can do someone a favor.  Ask someone out on a date.  Write your Congressman and ask her to vote a specific way on a bill that’s coming up that’s important to you.  Think of things to ask for – big things, small things, it doesn’t matter.

What will matter is how you feel when you ask, and how you feel when you get a response.  Are you scared to ask?  Does it feel worse if the person says no?  Do you feel a sense of relief if the person says yes?  Keep a record of how you feel, what was going on around the situation, and the outcome.

The goal here is not necessarily to try to get as many people to say yes as possible.  You don’t need to worry about that in the early stages.  Let it be a numbers game at first, and a scattershot.  You want to be in the habit of simply… asking for what you want.  It’s not about demanding and it’s not about being upset at being told no.  It’s about being willing to step up to the plate and ask and take that risk.

Don’t get mad at a negative response, ‘kay?  Part of this is to practice not taking no personally.  If you’ve been fighting with your kids for years to make sure they take out the trash on the night before the garbage collectors are supposed to pick it up, that’s too emotive a situation to be using for this practice.  If you find you feel upset at any no, examine that.   To be successful in the self-employment game, you’ll need to figure out how to stop doing that!

Work From Home Course Lesson One: Have the sK1Lz

You need something valuable to sell – be it your ability to make jewelry, your skill with words, your skill with a needle, your ability to make herbal remedies…  That’s the first step.  Thing is, friend, it’s just a first step.  That skill is a tool just as much as a hammer or a ladle.  It means nothing unless backed up by knowledge and the will to use it.  Notice that I said knowledge and will.  Being self-employed is as much of a skill set as knowing how to be a chef.  You’ll need to work on that part or you’ll be screwed.

Remember when I said in the last post that you’d need to figure out 20 things you were good at?  Okay, you did it, right?  You didn’t because you know what you want to do, anyway?

<sighs>  I’ll wait.  You’ll need to do this even if you think you know how you want to make your living from home.  ‘Cause, friends, you do not want to get stuck on one idea.  That’s how most people fail.

Here’s my own list:

  1. Writing
  2. Knitting
  3. Being funny
  4. Baking
  5. Sewing
  6. Planning
  7. Jollying people along
  8. Figuring out technical material
  9. Building systems
  10. Swimming
  11. Being snarky
  12. Learning new material
  13. Improvisation
  14. Languages (Human or computer)
  15. Reading
  16. Making complex information understandable
  17. Thinking outside of the box
  18. Getting people excited about their own goals
  19. Anthropomancy (see item #11)
  20. Finding Useful Information

Of course, I’m good at more than twenty things and so are you.  That was what came off the top of my head.  If you have to think really hard about this, you’re taking it too seriously or being too modest.  For the record, please don’t map “good” to “world class”.  If you’re world-class at something, great.  I’m not world-class at anything, and I don’t sweat it.  I’m not an Olympic athlete or a major world figure, so I don’t have to be, either.

The reason this is so important is because if your goal is to make a living without having a Real Job, you’re going to need to be flexible, and you’re going to need to know your own skills.  When I started out, I figured I’d do a lot of Virtual Assistant work, with some writing thrown in if I were Really Lucky.  I’ve had one VA client and earn over 50% of my living writing.  When I was tossed a chance to teach classes in computer applications, I gave it a try, even though I’d crashed and burned at my last try, was terrified of letting this person down and had the worst case of stage fright before that class that I’ve had before or since.   But I’ve gone on to be a popular teacher of computer applications.  Those things I’m good at (snarkiness, explaining technical material simply, being funny, inspiring people) are all things I apply to teaching.

I was not wedded to any one way of making money, nor was I insistent that I had to do it in a certain way.  I was flexible and open to whatever came along.  And let me tell you, serendipity has already led me some places I hadn’t expected to go!

How do you do this? You need to ask yourself The Question.

The Question is:

What goods, services or talents can I trade for money?

Look back at that list of things you do well.  How can they apply?   Let’s say you’re really organized and understand the efficient use of space.  Maybe applying those skills to people who need help organizing their lives would be a good thing.  But even if you chose “professional organizer”, there’s dozens of ways to go about it.  You could offer a personal service where you come into their homes and get your hands dirty in the closets with them.  You could offer an online service where they take pictures and you make recommendations, laying out the necessary steps.  You could give seminars on the principles of organization.  Notice how many different ways there are to approach that single thing.

That’s the way you need to be able to think to make your living without a job.  What might someone pay me to do or make?  What am I good at that could be valuable to someone, especially on a short-term basis?

Barbara Winters, author of Joyfully Jobless, recommends that you create three or four income streams – jobs/services/whatever that will each bring in about a week’s worth of income a month.  I do something similar, simply because I’m not comfortable with all my income coming from one place.   You don’t have to, nor should you be, wedded to making your living in any one specific way.  Certainly I’d never set out to become a computer instructor.  It’s merely serendipity that I found out I love doing it!  I’d keep up with it even if I were making a decent living off of royalties from a best-selling novel with a big movie deal.

I can’t answer The Question for you.  In fact, while I can throw out ideas, the ones you generate for yourself are the ones that will be infinitely better than anything I can give you.  You know yourself, your talents and your life situation better than I do.  If dogs frighten you, a suggestion to take in dog-boarding clients is not going to be the best way to go.

Speaking of dogs…

I highly encourage you to hunt up Robert A. Heinlein’s “-We Also Walk Dogs”.  The service mindset of the corporation described in the classic science fiction short story is exactly the mindset you need to figure out ways to generate income for yourself.

But there are skills that are universally necessary to anyone who is self employed!  Next week, we’ll talk about some that are both universal to the self-employed and either learnable or things you can outsource.

As an exercise this week, I’d like you to brainstorm ways that your talents could be turned into goods or services.  Don’t be “realistic” here.  Brainstorming isn’t useful if the editor is turned on.  Try for at least 30 ideas, no matter how goofy.

Work From Home: A Fair Warning About the Course

The next lesson won’t be until next Wednesday, but I really feel this needs to be said and soon about the course.

You probably won’t follow through on this.  Chances are good you’ll quit.  Either you’ll decide that the insecurity is too much to take, you’ll look yourself in the face and realize that you need a boss to tell you what to do and when to do it, or you’ll get discouraged and disgusted and think I was “lucky” or am blowing smoke about this.    I doubt that more than one in a couple of hundred have the requisite character traits and skills to make self-employment a genuinely viable option.

Thing is, it’s not necessarily about self-discipline.   Certainly not in my case, as I’m hardly a self-disciplined person.  It wasn’t self-discipline, it was desperation.   I had a secure job with the best boss I’ve ever had, fantastic benefits and cool people to work with.  And the idea of spending the rest of my life in an office, even in what was genuinely a great working environment, made me gag.   I was willing to crash and burn hard if only I could say that I made a real, genuine, honest effort to be my own boss.  If you’re desperate and there’s Just No Other Way to bring in money, you might very well succeed.  “Root hog, or die!” has spelled the success of more than one entrepreneur!  But, I wouldn’t risk a nickel that anyone reading this will actually do it.

This is not something you can do because you’re looking for the easy way to do something.  If you are out of a job and you’re not combing the want ads for work, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors and willing to turn your hand to anything honest, if you turn down jobs that aren’t “good enough”, skip it.  Stop reading.  This isn’t going to do you a bit of good.  You have to have a passion to work – either for the idea, or because you don’t want your kids to go hungry.  If you’re thinking, “Oh it might be nice if…”  or  “I could pick up a little money doing…” you’re not coming from the place that will really work.  You need all the focus of “I WANT” that you did when you were two.  You have to be on fire to make this work.  Though, sometimes that fire can be banked coals…

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll give you a little story.

My family goes to Virginia Beach every summer.  We’ve been doing it since I was a small child.  So, this was our week at the beach.  I was sitting on the balcony about sunrise, with the bright orange disc beginning to push over the edge of the water, lighting a glistening golden path between myself and the horizon.  It was a clear morning with a gentle, rhythmic surf, and weight of the damp, bone-soothing heat you get on Southern beaches in August.  I had a cup of coffee at my elbow, laptop in my lap, writing an email to a client while my family slept behind the sliding glass door.

My father came out on the balcony with his laptop and a cup of coffee[1].   He opened up the machine, looked over at me, nodded to my computer and grinned, commenting, “That’s been a lifelong dream, hasn’t it?”

Yes, it was something I’d wanted and worked for from childhood.  That’s passion.

[1] Yep, I’m second generation work  from home.  Part of my unsuitability for offices was probably a result of specific training!

Intro to Work From Home Course

A Fair Warning About the Course

How to Make a Living From Home: a free course

You see a lot of scams about how to make a fortune while working from home.  The truth is that millions of people really do make a living as their own boss while working from home.  The sad truth is also that you’ll never be able to do this by taking a $250.00 seminar meant to get you excited and fired up.

So, because I’m a generous soul, I’ll tell you how to do it, and I’m going to tell you for free.  Why?  Because scams get on my nerves.  I’m not selling anything here.  This is my personal blog.  I’m writing it mostly because cheesy sales techniques and promises of riches get on my damn nerves.  I believe in real, so real is what you’re going to get here.

I am confident that if you follow these rules faithfully for a year, you will make a living.  You might or might not get rich.  But you’ll make a moderate living.  I’m not going to promise you the world with this.  I’m not going to wave as a success story all the people who made millions working from home.  Yes, they exist.  They’re also rare.

What’s not so rare, and is quite possible, is to be able to be self-employed and make an adequate living from it.   This course will not tell you how to do taxes, get you to decide on a business form or any of that stuff.  It’s important, yes.  Crucial, in fact.   But most of the books on self-employment out there talk about it.  I’ll be listing books I think are useful.  But for this piece it would be like having a cookbook that tells you to make a grocery list.   What you need to understand are the principles behind making self-employment work before you start trying to set things up.

I know whereof I speak with this.  Almost 20 years ago, I wrote my first (and for about a decade and a half, my only) professional piece for a client.  It was a book on how to open a mailing and packaging business.  It was a fun project, not only because I was writing something, but because I was researching how to open a small business and learning a whole lot from a small business owner.  It was great!

A few years later, I started a business with three other people.  We were very focused on incorporating, setting up the tax stuff and all that.  Now, that wasn’t wrong.  But the problem was that we got so into the administrivia that we didn’t spend nearly enough time on the parts of the business that would make the tax stuff relevant.  We were nerds and found structure cool.  What can I say?  It made enough money to pay for the toys of a household of geeks and wound up being a pretty good tax shelter, which was nice. But it was never a way to support the family as we had been hoping.

We were not thinking like entrepreneurs and we were not focused on why we’d started the business in the first place.

Some years later, after having spent about six or seven years as an administrative assistant, I realized I have about as much talent for being an admin as a rock does, but that I enjoyed it less.   My living situation had changed and I was in a position to take a bit of a risk.  So I spoke to my housemate and said, “You know I don’t want to be supported by you, but if I have to face another day of being an admin, I am going to go bonkers.”

“And this is a change how?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “Okay, fair enough. But I’m not happy.  I just figured out how much money I’m committed to bringing into the household and I don’t think there’s really a chance in hell I’d fail to do so.  I wanna quit my job and make my living being a bum.”

“Okay,” he said.  “If you’re willing to take the risk, I have faith in you.”

Two years later, I’m still making a living as a bum[1].

This information isn’t really new, though.  You’re going to read a lot of it and go, “But that’s just common sense.”

If you say “Yes, but I can’t do it that way because I’ve got a Special Problem” to more than one of the major lessons of this piece and are not already making the living you want from home, you might wanna examine why this might be the case.

If you’re already making a living from home and making enough to suit yourself what the hell are you wasting your time on this for?  Go back to your success and enjoy it, dewd.  I’m not trying to preach to the choir here!  Congratulations on making it work in your own way.

The next lesson is going to be, “Have the sK1lZ.”

As a prep exercise, think of 20 things you’re good at.  Not just the big exciting stuff.  Write down the little, dumb stuff, too.

The next lesson will be next Wednesday!

[1] My children scold me when I call myself a bum.   “Mama, you work,” they protest.  Kids…