I recently became my own boss. This statement probably sounds so exciting to so many people who have had tough experiences with bosses! The problem, of course, is that the other side of the coin is also true: I became my own employee. No one else was around to motivate my sleepy, hungry mind when the afternoon doldrums came around — that was all on me.
What I realized as I began to work for myself was that self-management is the most important thing a freelancer can learn. Not just regulating yourself in terms of how much you work and how hard you work, but giving yourself the needed daily structure that helps you maximize your productivity and happiness. Here are just a few of the strategies I have used to manage myself during my early months as a freelancer. Some of them even translate to managing other people!
1. Offer Incentives
Most of us aren’t so inherently driven to work that we need no motivation in order to do so. I realized early on that I would get my work done much faster if I gave myself incentives. At a typical office, they might have a budget for bonuses, but I had to work with the currency I had: time. I told myself that, if I got my deliverables completed by 4 PM, I could go to the gym or take a walk around the block instead of pushing forward into more work that afternoon. If someone asked me to have lunch with them on Thursday, I’d set it up as a deadline of sorts, telling myself the lunch was dependent on getting my work accomplished. This may all sound silly, but it really isn’t any sillier than managers at typical workplaces pegging the yearly bonus to the performance of the company. I recommend creating an incentive structure for yourself that can help on the days when you simply don’t want to work, and your inner manager becomes your inner lazy intern.
2. Prioritize (And Treasure) Your Golden Hours
One of the biggest benefits of freelance work is that you can do it at the time when your brain is most alive; for me, I can get as much done from 6 am to noon as I could get done if I had 12 other hours. For this reason, I try to avoid having anything interrupt me during those hours; obviously, things come up, but I want to write for the highest percentage of those hours that I can manage. It frees me to spend the afternoons doing interviews, working in spreadsheets, and sending emails, my lower brain-energy tasks. If our bosses at typical workplaces could look into our brains and see how fast those synapses are firing, they’d want to optimize our schedules, too. However, as a self-employed person, you have the insight of what makes your “employee” tick, so you can set your schedule in a way that makes you happiest and most productive.
3. Hold Self-Check-In “Meetings”
The idea of having a meeting with only yourself may seem very silly; it certainly could pan out that way. My point about having a check-in meeting is less about sitting at a table and talking in two funny voices to create a dialogue, and more about forcing yourself to take a break from the work itself to think about the why behind the work. Maybe a weekly meeting could involve journaling about recent feedback from clients, goal-setting for the next week or two, strategizing about what your next “dream client” might be and how you could land them. These meetings are basically a chance to reflect on what is working and where you want to go, rather than simply going with whatever is the easiest next step. A strategy is essential in any workplace, and a good self-check-in can help you to notice where you are and where you want to.
4. Grant Yourself Time Off When Needed
Just like your workplace boss notices when you are burnt out and need a break, you should also be able to give yourself the break you need! Rather than having to grant you PTO in terms of half days and whole days, your self-management boss-in-your-own-head can give you a half hour off to drink a latte, or the last two hours of the day off to meet up with a friend at the gym. These micro-days-off have everything to do with keeping up your spirits and preparing you for the next bout of hard work; yes, you should acknowledge in your self-check-in if you are taking more time off than is sustainable, but that doesn’t mean you should have no free time during the workday. Freelancing gives you the ability to be free when you really want to be and to do work at the times that make the most sense for you.
5. Set Ambitious But Achievable Goals For Yourself
A huge part of why people feel productive at work is that their bosses ask them to achieve a big, ambitious task. On their own, people might think it would be impossible, but with that vote of confidence from “above,” they get it done. One of the biggest self-management steps that you can learn is how to push yourself just a little harder than you think you can work. When I opened my first business checking account, one of the questions that the banker asked me was how much income I expected to make that year. When I told him, his eyebrows went up slightly and he said, “Well, it never hurts to aim high.” If I wasn’t sure I could get to that number before, I definitely wanted to hit it after he said that. As your own boss, you have to be part of steering the ship into the wind, and that may mean setting really high goals for your own productive output. What “ambitious” means is entirely up to you and your circumstances, but most of us thrive on doing a little more than we think we can, whatever those metrics may be.
When people say that they are “their own boss,” they may sound like they are saying “haha I don’t have a boss!” In my experience, becoming your own boss (and your own employee) means having to be really clear-eyed about your own abilities and your own need for structure. It’s exciting to have a boss that lives in my own mind, but I definitely recommend letting your inner boss out to do some managing; you’ll see great results if you do.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio.
Image via Unsplash