For many years now I’ve split my time between freelancing from home and working in an office. Now though, almost all of my working life takes place in at home. Thank goodness I reserved a room to be a home office — five months into almost full time freelancing and I would have been a frustrated mess if I still had to eke out work space from laundry space, sleep space and eating space. In my home office, I have things set up how I like, and I only answer to my boss — Jessica — my other clients, and my guinea pigs.
But no matter how perfectly I’ve set things up, I still sometimes feel the need for escape, and I still sometimes procrastinate myself into a corner.
Last month, a new study on the psychological impact of telecommuting was published by the Association for Psychological Science. They found that telecommuting works best in moderation and needs to be tailored to the individual needs of workers and organizations: there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
“[S]ome benefits may come with specific tradeoffs. While telecommuting may allow employees to be more productive, it could also lead to longer work days; it may increase employees’ sense of autonomy in their own jobs but could reduce knowledge sharing with colleagues; and it may allow for more flexibility in juggling professional and personal responsibilities but could also blur the boundaries between work and family roles.”
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Telecommuting and freelancing are alike in that they both afford workers with tremendous freedom and flexibility. Sometimes too much freedom. Procrastination is an always looming temptation and a lack of structure can leave some workers spinning their mental wheels, just trying to set priorities. On the other hand, working from home can leave you feeling penned in, as it eats away at the boundaries between work and home life. If you’re not careful, both can suffer.
Ultimately, structure, discipline, accountability and drive are what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful freelancers. It’s not so different from any other kind of work — you just have be your own disciplinarian. “Being your own boss” may sound like freedom, but it actually means being your own boss. There’s no offloading work onto junior employees: only you can get it done.
But it’s also essential to keep in mind what the Association for Psychological Science tells us: there’s no one way structure, discipline, accountability and drive should look like. John Rampton, in short piece on productivity hacks, looks at the diverse working strategies of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. They’re all incredibly successful tech CEOs but they don’t work the same way and they don’t think the same way.
Mark Zuckerberg maintains his productivity by radically simplifying every other aspect of his life. His wardrobe is reduced to a casual uniform. His home, although lovely, is stripped down and bereft of distractions like home theatres and game rooms. His strategy is keep his focus on work.
Bill Gates uses three different monitors so that he can split up roles and tasks on each without being tempted to switch over to another, more interesting tab. He also goes on a weeklong unplugged retreat, where he refocuses and looks back on the year.
Elon Musk does everything, all the time, at the same time.
For me, it’s different. I’m not running a tech giant, just a couple of sites with some freelance work on the side. But that doesn’t mean I’m not just as concerned about keeping up my productivity and being true to my responsibilities. Just as they work around their foibles and quirks, turning them to their advantage, so do I — and you — have to.
Where Elon Musk embraces multitasking, I’m all about shifts, blocking my day out four hours at time, for different tasks or responsibilities.
Where Mark Zuckerberg is all about simplicity, I am here for simplicity + comfort + stimulation, having decorated my office with plants, art, reference books, and a comfy couch, and of course, sharing the space with two active guinea pigs.
Unlike Bill Gates I have yet to figure out how to make a Think Week, as he calls his retreats, a workable reality. I haven’t been on a proper vacation in years, in part due to the realities of freelance life — the work is never really over — and because my workaholic ways make unplugging an anxiety-inducing prospect. One day, though, Think Week will be mine.
There are so many listicles out there, collecting tips for freelancers and telecommuters: have a strict routine; set clear boundaries; keep to a regular work week; never work in pyjamas. But all of these kinds of tips, the less practical and more philosophical kind, aren’t universal. Everyone should file their taxes and keep their paperwork in order. Everyone should respond to emails in timely manner (I’m working on it, I swear!) and keep abreast of the latest news in their field. But we all have different lives, with different responsibilities, and we all approach work a little differently.
Making the shift to telecommuting or freelancing isn’t just about assessing the personal and financial costs and benefits, it’s about clearly assessing your potential as an independent worker, and building an individualized system that will ensure you succeed. It’s about figuring out how you can make it work for you. It’s about playing to your strengths and turning your weaknesses into advantages. Love to sleep in late? Maybe you should be working at night. Have trouble sticking with one thing? Maybe you’re a born multitasker like Elon Musk.
The best advice I can give you, aside from the obvious dictums to work hard and work smart, is to disregard the listicles and instead take some time to assess your working style, and to then build a system around you. It’s ok to be non-traditional in approach — after all, telecommuting and freelancing are growing in part because they offer the opportunity to do just this.