The Self Employed Life: Finding Your Routine

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The self employed life can be one of the most challenging learning curves after college. After all, your time has always been structured by the traditional education system and employee time-sheets. As the owner of a design agency in Providence, I’ve had to make some adjustments to my expectations of what working for myself means. Staying motivated, managing my time efficiently and setting boundaries with clients are all tasks I’ve had to learn. Control over my time is a bonus, but learning how to manage it takes work.

Here are five tips on finding a routine that is both productive and fulfilling:

1. Reconnect with past and current networks on your new career path

You may wonder what this piece of advice has to do with setting a routine, so let me explain: reserving a few afternoons for afternoon coffee dates and social functions can be the closest thing to a job when you work for yourself.

Now that you’re no longer in an office, it’s easy to slip into a lifestyle that is less than social. If you make an effort to meet up with colleagues, friends from college, and so on, you’ll start to reignite past connections that may come in handy in the future, or lead to new business. More importantly, scheduling appointments that are both productive and enjoyable will become part of your new routine.

There’s a reason why relationships are important, even the most distant ones. I structure my week around catching up with old colleagues, acquaintances, and professionals in the same industry. If I’m not doing that, then you can find me attending networking or social events. Why? Because maintaining these friendships and connections becomes an integral part of my routine.

2. Productivity isn’t measured by how early you wake up; it’s measured by what you accomplish.

I always knew I wasn’t a morning person, and that fact became more and more apparent once I began working for myself. Not knowing your most productive time of day may become a liability when it comes to reaching your goals.

Figuring out your most productive hours in the day is key to solidifying your time-management skills so you can get the most out of your work day.

I used to feel guilty about not having to wake up at 6AM like everyone else. No matter how hard I worked, or how long I stayed up working, I still felt like a slacker. Ever heard the saying “The early bird gets the worm”? I try not to follow this logic because I have never been, nor will I ever be, a morning person. I just work hard when I’m most productive.

If you’re not a morning person, there’s a biological reason for that. So why try to tackle your most important tasks at a time when you’re not the most focused?

Here’s a taste of my morning routine: I get up roughly around 8:30AM, get dressed, have coffee, answer emails and follow up with potential clients, my team and existing clients.

Real work comes after that. I’m at my best from 10AM to 3PM, so I focus on my most challenging projects between this time frame. Visual tasks such as graphic design or creative direction come easier to me. Tasks that require writing requires more focus and effort. So since my productive hours are between 10AM and 3PM, I tackle my writing assignments first and visual projects afterwards.

On a side note: much of the existing literature on productivity suggests that emails should never be answered first thing in the morning and that your emails should be batch-answered so that your distractions and reactive patterns only occur at specific times of the day. I don’t follow this rule, as it doesn’t work for me or my clients.

3. Create a clear distinction between work and play

For the sake of productivity, health and sanity--it’s important to make distinctions between work-time and play-time. Whether it’s where you work, or when you work, drawing red lines around your time and space will help create a healthy, more structured routine.

For instance, if you’ve developed a habit of working through lunch or dinner, then soon enough, you may forget to take some time for your meals and work through them. Or you may develop a poor habit of answering emails or talking about work when you’re out with friends.

If you work from home and don’t have a home office, refrain from working on the couch, or in the bedroom. Work on your dining room table instead, or better yet, at a desk in the corner. If you don’t, you may run the risk of chronic backaches and migraines. Mother was right, good posture is important.

Working at a local co-working office space can be a great way to build your network and learn from other business owners.

Don’t allow your work/play time to get fuzzy. You are either plugged-in or unplugged. A bad habit can easily morph into a bad routine.

4. Fine tune your time-management skills

Ask any freelancer, start-up entrepreneur or seasoned small business owner and they’ll tell you this: it’s easy to slip into a less than productive routine. The reason? Time-management.

Don’t get carried away with your free time. Sure, you no longer have to beat morning traffic or sit through long-winded company meetings for two to three hours. This time can now be used to check a few easy things off your list. Don’t wait for new work opportunities to maximize free time.

Going with the grain is also important. By this, I mean working when everyone else is working. If you prefer waking up at noon and going to bed at 4AM, you’ll end up missing out on prime hours to communicate with clients. Most of my clients reply to my email first thing the following morning, as it’s usually the most available they’ll be to answer questions and reply back. If I miss this short time frame to communicate with clients, I will further isolate myself from the real world, creating a habit of delayed communication. By missing this time frame, you are not going with the grain, but rather delaying projects. I strongly believe that poor follow-up skills are caused by poor time-management. Of course, if you’re in a profession that doesn’t require setting time boundaries, such as an artist or programmer, then this may not apply to you.

5. Set boundaries

Just because you’re self employed shouldn’t mean you are reachable any time of the day. That’s the mistake I made when I first started working on my own. Clients would email me at midnight and ask if the project could be done by 6am. And you know what? I would do it. BIG MISTAKE.

The consistent inconsistencies I allowed to be a part of my daily routine lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. It was hard to track my work hours properly and led my clients to believe that my free time was theirs.

FYI: If you’re a personal assistant for a celebrity chef, or have another job that requires you to be available at any time, you should ask to be compensated for that extra flexibility.

There’s a reason why cultivating an independent routine can be a major challenge--we’re not used it.

My mode of operation has been cultivated by the education system, colleagues and previous office jobs. Now--unless I have a meeting with a client--no one is waiting for me at the office at 8am. Additionally, if I’m not at the studio, then you can find me working from home or from a coffee shop. My patterns and habits have changed in order to fit my new lifestyle.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between the routine you think you should have and what actually works for you. It requires trial and error to figure out and commands you to be open and flexible. The best part about it is that you’re doing it for yourself and no one else.

Photos by Brister Photo

Stephanie Issa is the co-founder and creative director of Studio Issa--a design agency in Providence, RI. She specializes in creative storytelling and communication, whether it be through client projects, painting, or exploring new mediums of self expression. When she’s not traveling, Stephanie shares posts on design + branding, new experiences, and awesome people. Born in Brazil, raised in New England, and now calls Providence her home.  Find her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.