Ten Lessons from Ten Years of the Self-Employed Life

09/13/2011 04:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011
  • Mark Silver Author, consultant, healer. Heads up team at Heart of Business, Inc.

In 1999 I started doing small paid projects and teaching classes on business, but I was still working part-time as a paramedic in Oakland, California. I went full time self-employed, finally, in 2001. This month marks Heart of Business' 10th anniversary.

Ten years of paying the mortgage, making the bills, and living life. That's a big one! I don't usually make a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries, but perhaps I can be prodded into a celebration later this month.

Right now I'm reflecting on what is perhaps one of the most important, but least talked about aspects of being self-employed.

As I reflect, I can hear bangs and bumps upstairs from our twins, as my wife somewhat patiently explains to them not to dump the as-yet uncooked scrambled eggs on the floor. I couldn't make out what she was saying -- I learned it was scrambled eggs because I had to take a bathroom break, which means going upstairs, walking through the kitchen, greeting the boys with their bowls of eggs, and then walking back down stairs.

If you work at home, you know how hard it is to maintain focus and get real work done. Whether or not you have kids, there are so many wonderful things to pull your attention, whether it's the bathroom that needs to be cleaned, the closet that needs to be reorganized, or a couch that needs to be sprawled on.

It took me quite awhile to get into the groove of working from home productively. At this point I can't imagine leaving the house for fifty hours a week to go work somewhere else.
In honor of the ten years I've been doing this, I thought I'd share ten insights into living the self-employed life.

1. Don't be too disciplined.

There's a lot to be said for discipline and focus, and yet there's a lot to be said for going with the flow.

There's only so much you can get done in a day, a week, a month, or a year. And it's less than you might imagine, mainly because creativity needs blank space, doodle space. Not just non-work down time, but work-related down time.

If you try to be too disciplined and focused, you'll lose the juice of creativity. So you spent an hour at your desk doing nothing, it's okay. Now follow it up with twenty minutes of productive focused work, and you'll have gotten a surprising amount done.

2. Be careful at the grocery store.

In between, or in the middle of, challenging projects it's easy to drift into the kitchen for a little nosh. I find it very hard to every second resist eating what I shouldn't.

However, if I don't buy it, and it's not in the house, I don't eat it. Simple enough. I do try and get healthy snacks that still satisfy me. Current faves include roasted seaweed, medjool dates, Oskri bars, and beef jerky from Pine Mountain Ranch.

3. Make appointments outside the house.

I can get into ruts where literally DAYS go by without leaving the house. Well, not so much now that we have kids, but before the boys came along, in the dead of winter when it's raining continually, Thursday morning I'd realize... hey, I haven't been out since Monday.

Not healthy. Don't depend on your willpower. Set up appointments to get out.

4. Give your business its own space.

My business email doesn't come into my iPhone. My business phone line only rings in the office downstairs. In fact, nearly everything related to Heart of Business stays in the downstairs office.

However you choose to interact with your business, give it its own space so at least you have the choice. If your business is fully inhabiting all of your living space, then you don't get to choose what works for you. It's own phone, desk, filing system, book shelf, and if you can do it, room with a closing door.

5. Nap when you need to.

Sleep is so critical. And when we're living our busy lives, sometimes night time rest gets shortchanged. If you're at an office, you can't take a nap. Working from home, you can. Do it. Seriously.

6. Learn from others.

Other people have been working from home for a long time. Charlie, Michael, Sarah, Molly are all doing an amazing job.

And, if you want to step it up a notch, you may even want to have an Inspired Home Office.
7. Know thyself.

When you first start out working at home, you may not know yourself, but if you pay attention, you soon will. When are you most productive? When do you tend to droop? What works for you?

Some people love working in cafes, some don't. Some love working in the early morning, some prefer later afternoons, some late evenings.

Do you need paper to doodle on? A big whiteboard? Do you need visual reminders? Does clutter bother you, or is it an inspiration to your creativity?

For me, I can tolerate a certain amount of clutter and still focus. Periodically I clear it all out back down to clean and clear, but that's not how I live and it works for me. I also tend to be productive early mornings, and strangely enough, later afternoons. After 7pm I'm pretty much toast, work-wise.

8. Get help with your office.

After getting some examples (#6) and learning about yourself (#7), then get some help.
For me, I can do a certain amount of clean up or organizing on my own, but for larger projects I need help. Even if it's just my wife sitting and talking to me while I get started.
Don't go it alone.

9. Give it up if it doesn't work.

If you've given working at home a real go for a couple of years, and you realize it's not working for you, try an alternative. Rent a small apartment nearby. Try a co-working space.
If you need the total focus that a completely separate space provides, go for it. It does make for an additional expense, but so does owning a home large enough to have an extra office.

10. Enjoy it.

Ten years later I'm still amazed that I can completely set my own schedule. Take Tuesday morning off to go tree-climbing with an arborist friend? Decide to work four-day work weeks?

Yes, I do sometimes work weekends, evenings, or long hours when projects ask that of me. But far more often I'm enjoying my schedule.

Now excuse me while I go upstairs for a couple of medjool dates and to play with my kids for a bit. I'll be back down in a bit.

How about you? What works for you working from home?