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Facing freelance fear for the future

When I started out freelance in October 2008, I knew setting up business for myself involved risk: “Will I be able to win clients? Will I survive? Am I better off with the security of employment for someone else?”

On day 1, I had a contract for 11 days work at 350 euros before VAT. Enough to pay the bills for the first month. But I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in November?”

I started the next month with the same (renewed) contract and some other new work . I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in January?”

Eventually, as I saw some stability, I managed to stop worrying too far in the future. (Today, for example, I know that I have enough work until February 2016.) I started to think the sky was the limit and wondered how far I could increase my revenue. I even congratulated myself on being able to take on so much and make it work. At that point, things became interesting and the fear changed form…

 

I would win more-and-more work and invoice more-and-more, but I started to feel the pressure of too much work. But I told myself  that this was “a luxury problem” .. I should be thankful the work is there. I was afraid to say “no”. If they asked for me, I had to make it happen. If I said “no”, it would all fall apart sometime later. This is how my work progressed…

revenue-worktime 1

Proudly, I would tell myself I was working and invoicing more-and-more and that business was great. But a look at the facts told me something was wrong:

  • I was working minimum 60 hours a week, every week
  • I was too tired to enjoy any of my non-work time
  • People said I was on the road to burn-out
  • I was making money, but I didn’t feel like I had any control
  • I worried constantly that if I said “no”, people would go away and I would lose that business in the future
  • I was “successful” on paper, but not happy

 

 

For a while, I held the course. It worked.

Then it didn’t. I couldn’t do it anymore.

 

The next year (2013), I had a “crash” and couldn’t work for a few months. When I went back to work, I struggled to deal with the commitments I had made prior to that. But I wouldn’t dare go back to those clients and say “I can’t do it”. That would be breaking a promise. And I had already let them down by the taking time off. So on I went. The yearly revenue went up even more despite the time off. And although the average work time went down on the year (due to my absence) my actual week looked even worse then ever.

 

I wondered if I had learnt anything, but in the back of my mind I had at least started to ask some good questions:

  • How can I call myself successful if I’m not happy or healthy? “Success” in terms of what?
  • How much of my life do I want to spend “working”?
  • What work do I WANT to be doing? If I was only doing what I liked most, what would it be?
  • How much money do I need to live how I want to live? Why would I need more than that?
  • If I say “No” to anything that doesnt fit the work I want, or anything unnecessary to meet a quarterly financial need, what could be the worst that might happen?

 

Not knowing all the answers was tough. It fueled the fear (“Don’t screw it up”). But I was past the point of no-return: Assumptions had to be tested to find a new balance.

 

Today, the graph has progressed on both measurements, most importantly the average weekly work-time:

revenue-worktime 2

 

Here’s what I learnt from my crash:

  • Its not healthy to consider success in terms of “more”. Success is achieving what you really want or need and no more. In terms of my revenue, I no longer think “Can I invoice more?” but rather “Do I now have enough?” If the answer is “yes”, I won’t take on any more work. I know that its possible in the short-term, but more work and more money is not the goal. For the years to follow, I have no intention at all to see those blue bars go up.
  • I now set “work-life balance” goals more in terms of “life” than “work”. What do I want to be doing with my time on Earth, both in and (now importantly) out of work time?  (The answer by the way is “having fun” and “relaxing”). I want to see those red bars go down even more. Or at least to consider that all “work” is “not work” (fun).
  • I made a decision on the financial worth of a day of my life. Here’s how: If I want to be doing 123 when I’m not working and I need XYZ euros to sustain that, how much do I need to earn while I AM working? And if I divide that by the maximum time I am willing to work, what is my required day-rate? This is a very different approach to “What did I used to invoice?”, “How much will they pay me?” or “What is the market price?”
  • Although previous experience made me think I knew how things worked, testing assumptions has proved me wrong. For example, when I clients came along, I tested the assumption of what they would be willing to pay for my time. That’s why the blue bar HAS still gone up.
  • I fired a few clients. Those who weren’t bringing me joy in my day-to-day interactions had to go, as did those who weren’t willing to pay for my time (life). Blue bar up; red bar down.
  • I started to say “No” trying to trust myself and the universe that it would all be OK.

 

The results in terms of finance and work-time are in the graph above, but the important results cannot be seen in numbers:

  • My time off work is spent sitting in the sun, playing with my kids, sleeping more and making music
  • This summer was the first in 7 years where I didn’t “fall over and die” from exhaustion in the first 2 weeks off
  • I have more focus in the jobs I take on and more fun day-to-day doing the work
  • I still have my annual 15 weeks holiday 🙂

 

“So, Dan, what’s your point?” I hear you ask? “Why write this?”

I guess for those that don’t need to hear this experience, there is nothing to learn. But if you are lost in your quest for freelance success, victim of your own ability to please your clients or worried that your work-life imbalance is not sustainable, maybe this is the point:

 

Be clear on what you want out of freelance life, focus on that in every interaction, test your assumptions and dare to take your cake and eat it.

 

But, in the words of some wise Chinese tourist-site manager…

chinese wisdom

 

Thanks for reading

D

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No more self-employed lazy guilt

As a self-employed person, I have a tendency to work, work, work. But right now, it’s 9.15am and I still haven’t “done anything”. Is this bad?

Well, first of all: It is not true. Having gotten up at 6.30, I packed my kids off to school, spent 45 minutes exercising and have since been reading “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel whilst eating a healthy breakfast that I enjoyed taking the time to prepare. So I have done something.

But let’s pretend that I had just rolled over in bed, left the family to it and done nothing but sleep. Yesterday, I only did a 2-hour coaching session and I just spent all of July and August on holiday. That doesn’t sound like doing much. Is that OK? Is that what self-employed people do?

Last week, I read an article about the morning rituals of awesome entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey or Mr Branson. Up at 5.30. Sport. Meditation. Family etc.. Inspired by that this morning, I thought I should probably now sit down and seriously meditate on my top 3 priority business objectives for the day, week and year to come. I should make plans for new services or products, improved efficiency and more profit. That’s what successful business types do in the morning, right?

But quite frankly, I can’t be bothered. I don’t need to do anything. Tomorrow and Friday I’ll be delivering training all day, my revenue-winning calendar is as fully-booked as I’d like it to be and I don’t have anything hanging over my head. Except the “self-employed-lazy-guilt”, that is.

And then the phone rings. Is it a new client calling to ask me if I’m available for training next Wednesday? What will I say? Strictly speaking, I’ll only be lazing around doing nothing but fuelling my own pleasure. Will I be able to say “No”? Can I tell the truth? Or should I say I’m fully-booked? What if he takes a day off himself and sees me at the cinema at 11am? Or running in the park? Where will I hide?

Or maybe it’s my mother, calling to tell me I’m a lazy freelancer and I can’t possibly expect to be successful if I just hang-around doing nothing when work could be done.  “Everybody has to work”. “You can’t expect to just take random days off in the week. Your father could never do that.” Or even worse: “Don’t say ‘No’ to work now. You never know if you’ll still have more next year. You’re lucky people ask you. You should say ‘Yes’.”

Fortunately, it’s an unknown number. The stuff of voicemail. I don’t answer it. Today, I am calling all the shots. As I was promised when I read “Freelancing for Dummies” all those years ago, it would be great if I could do whatever I want whenever I want. If I chose to work for myself, it’s because I thought I could be a better boss to myself than anyone else. Well, I want a boss who loves my happiness more than the cash, productive hours or time-filling. Who is happy with achieving targets and going home early. Correction: Who doesn’t even call it “early” because that implies some form of 9-to-5 ritual just for the sake of it. 

For the new season ahead, my boss is going to tell me take it as easy as possible. “The clients are satisfied and so should you be. And even if they aren’t, you can’t please everyone all the time.” Relax. It’s not lazy. It’s awesomely efficient, minimum effective dose. It’s long-term sustainable, more rounded and balanced. You deserve it. Not because you worked so hard before, but just because you deserve it. Full stop.

So go lay on the grass for a while.. 

Boldness, Decision and Action

Look at this picture. What’s wrong with it?

20130615-205046.jpg

Looks tidy, right? Nice Paul McCartney poster? Nobody died..

This is the small room at the bottom of the stairs in my house. Opposite the sofa you can find my guitars. Sometimes I sit and play there. The door goes through to the entrance of the house and my wife’s office.

But what is that pile of DVDs doing there? We don’t have a television in that room and “all my other DVDs” are nicely organised in their own little space.

 

THAT pile of DVDs is what is wrong with my life and what is wrong with the lives of many other people. THAT pile of DVDs is unfinished, indecision and procrastination. It is the annoying remains of a DVD-classifying and tidying job. No-one knows where to put them and no-one has made a decision. Every time someone sees them, small silent curses are made about what the hell they are doing there, followed (in my case) by mini-anxiety about having to deal with them, but not being sure what to do and where to put them.

In life, many people have their own “pile of DVDs”: The thing at the bottom of the to-do list that isn’t getting done, the dripping tap in the bathroom or the CV that still hasn’t been posted for that job opportunity.

These things remain unfinished and undecided as we procrastinate our way around them. It seems easier to ignore them than to take action. But they niggle away at our souls because they are not in their right place. When I wake up and come down the stairs, the first thing I see is those damn DVDs. And when I go to bed, they are the last thing that crosses my path before sleep.

 

In some cases, the consequences of inaction are quite small: The untuned piano and out of place DVDs will not change much. I don’t lose any sleep and nothing bad will come of it.

But in others cases, the consequences of inaction can be far worse: That niggling image of more important unfinished business eats away at you, causing insomnia and anxiety. What will I do about the wall that looks like it might fall down? How will I pay my credit-card bill? When will I finally get started on living my dreams?

 

In all cases, until there is a boldness, decision and action, nothing will change. The boldness is about daring to move forward with things. The decision is about what matters most, your priorities, the things you want out of life and how you want to feel about yourself. And action is about taking small steps towards satisfaction, one-at-a-time.

 

Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to force you into action: The wall falls down, the bank freezes your credit-card or burnout leaves you depressed and out of work.

In many cases, one of the following ideas might help:

 

Regarding my DVDs, it was Tony Robbins’ idea that got me started: I have been focussing on almost everything else in my life but those DVDs and what that means to me is the same as what my ever-fattening belly means: I am letting some other things go to shit. Action? [Pause from writing]

 

…OK… 30 minutes later they are gone. Some have been put in the children’s rooms.. Disney and The Gruffalo. The music ones have been put with my CDs. And the rest are in the big cupboard with things to sell on eBay. (That last idea is my answer to David Allen’s question: “What is the next concrete action I will take?”)

Whilst tidying, I contemplate the importance of Seth Godin’s idea and realise that it often seems easier to do nothing, plod along and get the same results. Going for gold is scary. What will it look like? How will it work? What if I fail?

 

But if you want to tidy those DVDs, fix the scary threatening wall or find the job of your dreams, you need a little boldness, decision and action to get you on track.

Change your relationship with time

In the beginning , man got up with the sun and went to sleep with the sun. The passage of time was measured in days or seasons. Time was spent slowly by hunting, farming and sleeping.

Sometime after, with the invention of clocks I suspect, new measures of time took over: hours, minutes and seconds. The passage of time immediately sped up. The longer time between days and seasons was replaced by the shorter time it takes to download an email, to microwave a potato or to clean the house..

Today, our obsession with time and the way we use it may well be killing us. Many people never stop moving and never stop doing, as if the time they have on Earth must be filled to the very last second. Our relationship with time has gone from non-conscious slow natural living in time to an obsessive fast-paced processed life, dominated by time.

But there are many ways to look at time and no-one way is right. Although our upbringing, culture and evolution may have pushed us in one direction, it is still possible to change our vision of and relationship with time… In this post, I propose 4 visions of time-spending.

 

Being productive

Imagine a couple preparing for a big dinner party. At 5pm, Jennifer starts to peel potatoes. She stops at 6pm. John, her husband, plays guitar from 5 to 5.30, then peels potatoes for 30 minutes. In terms of potato peeling, Jennifer has been twice as productive.

Productivity is one of the preferred measures of time used in many factory environments, including, in the past, call centres. People judge their time-usage in terms of how much time they spend doing “stuff”. Their “performance” is clocked in and out. The most productive person is the one who “performs” the longest.

In my last full-time employment, I knew a very productive girl. She would arrive at 7am and “do stuff” until at least 7pm. She rarely took the time to stop and chat, eat (or breathe) – she just worked, worked, worked. Unfortunately she wasn’t very good at her work, which was in itself not of the greatest importance to the company. But she was productive.

 

Being efficient

Between 5 and 6pm, Jennifer peeled 40 potatoes. Starting 30 minutes later, but finishing at the same time, John also peeled 40 potatoes. John was twice as efficient as Jennifer.

Many (poor) time-managers focus on being efficient. Its all about getting the most amount of stuff done in the smallest amount of time. Systems and processes are created to better multi-task. We text while we drive (!) and swallow the last mouth-fulls of dinner whilst already clearing away the dishes.

In the fitness world, much time has been spent maintaining the body through efficiency (or speed) based programs (in 30 minutes, do as many bicycle kilometres as you can…) but in recent years this has changed considerably to the concept of minimum effective dose: do the minimum required of the right stuff to get the desired result.

 

Create quality, in time

John proudly announced to Jennifer that he had peeled as many potatoes in half the time. At dinner time, all the guests sat down to eat the results. Those on Jennifer’s side of the table said nothing about the potatoes, simply enjoying their meal. On John’s side of the table, there was much discussion about the potatoes, from the fact that there were none left to the fact that each potato was so small. In his “efficiency rush”, John had completely ignored any sense of peeling potatoes well. The potato skins were chopped off in 4 exaggerated slices, leaving a small chip-like result.

Although quality output may seem to go hand-in-hand with time and despite the temptation to associate Jennifer’s potato-peeling time with the good results, quality output is in fact entirely nothing to do with time. When we approach every activity as either a “time-filler” or a race to get things done quickly, quality output is sometimes left aside.

But what is the point of the work anyway, if not about creating good results?

 

Create quality time

While Jennifer and John were concentrating on the evening’s potato requirements, their son William was playing in the garden. As he went up and down the slide, he created nothing. Going in and out of the wood cabin, each time opening and closing the door in a methodical yet meaningless way, he was lost in time and again created nothing.

In some Eastern cultures, the “single-minded” focus on the quality of some activities has a meditation-like focus. The Japanese tea ceremony is certainly not about the amount of time spent drinking tea, the number of cups drunk or the tea itself. When we sit down to read a novel, we tend not to notice the time fly and most adults don’t proudly count the number of pages they have read.

In Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, the author notes the difference between making quality time on a road-trip (getting there fast) and making quality time (having a good trip). Creating quality time is about being in “flow“, mastering and loving a task, or doing it for its own sake. * The output is in some respects irrelevant.

 

* …according to the Yerkes-Dodson law, it also happens to produce the best output.

 

————–

 

I am writing this post because I have issues with time. For many years, I have been rushing to get “everything” done. After a long working day, I would proudly announce the number of hours worked to anyone who would listen. I would add that I had done “a thousand things” and go to bed satisfied that my time had been well and efficiently spent. And if I should be bothered by any non-quality-output detail, I might even get out of bed to fix it. “Everything” could never be done and certainly not perfectly, but it was my mission to at least give it a shot.

But in reality, I have been wearing myself out. For the last few months (years?), I have lacked focus and lost flow; only thinking about the next objective and a future that never arrives, less in contact with the present moment. Look at my “2012 annual report” and you may realise that I have spent all my time working. And a LOT has been done. Good output too. I have been both productive, efficient and successful.

 

Now it is time to focus on creating quality time. On time well spent: flow and passion inducing, McLovin’ it. Because I’m worth it.

If you feel the need to do the same, I would encourage you (to):

  • Don’t be afraid to go “all-in”
  • Delete as much as possible that doesn’t bring joy to your life
  • Make sure your goals are PERSONAL
  • ..and don’t be afraid to just do nothing!

 

Good luck!

(Time for a walk…)

 

Thanks for reading.

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