The mental cost of working for yourself — and how to survive it.

I’m six years old and I wake up to the clatter of a keyboard — tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, TAP!

Through bleary eyes I look to the foot of my bed and there he is. My Dad sits nicely dressed for a productive day at the office in his finely pressed khakis, short sleeve shirt, neatly combed hair and well put together tie. Except today is different to all other days. Today my Dad isn’t going to the office, or better yet, his office is exactly where he’s sitting, at the foot of my bed with all my stuffed animals and barbie dolls for company. Highly motivated Dad sits cramped onto a tiny makeshift office desk he set up in my bedroom (which also doubled as the lounge) his knees barely fitting under the table. This is how my Dad started his first day working for himself.

It would take another 27 years until I’d really understand what that first day must have been like, why he got dressed properly to work from home and why years’ later he’d have swapped his khakis for board shorts and flip flops and tie for a simple t-shirt.

Okay so lets fast forward those 27 years. It’s 7 am, i’m up bright and early ready to kick off the first day working for myself with a bang. There had been six months, a lot of procrastination and some rather quizzical stares in the lead up to the big move away from my old life, and my first day was finally here! Come 8 am I’m sitting in the lounge at the breakfast table, now my office desk, I open the laptop full of enthusiasm, ready to rock the world.

The deafening silence.

Three coffees and as many hours later, i’d exhausted my to do list thoroughly. With only one client I sat staring at my empty inbox, it’s midday and the deafening sound of a silent flat is mocking me. When for the better part of 14 years you’re used to the morning rush, the routine, flying out the door to arrive at work and listen to the chitter chatter of office life and the grind of coffee machines, it can seem somewhat odd when the silence falls. I was only hours in and suddenly working from home felt like solitary confinement. With no one to talk to and only thoughts for distraction it didn’t take long for the mind to wander and the demons to creep in.

Everyone else is having a busy day, why aren’t YOU busy? They’re out making money and getting fat pensions and you’re sitting at home, what a loser!

Why don’t you have loads of clients already? Why’s the phone not ringing. If you’re not busy surely that means this isn’t going well?

Where’s the next pay check coming from?

Tip: calm it down. Create a music playlist that you can zone out to and get lost in your work, whether it’s a podcast, jazz or heavy rock, whatever floats your boat. Take regular breaks where you walk around, ideally outside, this will reset your mind and help you focus. If you do have remote meetings, with actual humans, always use the video (yes that means you can’t go to work in your pyjamas) and no we don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day, it’s good for clients to see your face and physiologically it’s good for you too!

Self imposed distraction.

Working from home you quickly realised there can be as many distractions as the interruption factory that is an office. Whether it’s taking out the rubbish, cleaning the dishes or putting on some laundry…don’t be fooled, home can be equally tough to work in. Friends or family that know you’re now working for yourself might assume that means you’re always free, dropping in or calling in the middle of the day.

Tip: be strict with yourself. Try co-working spaces and use noise cancelling headphones, possibly the greatest epiphany of my solo career so far (yes really). I work at a co-working space in Amsterdam, with a lovely desk by a canal where boats pass by all day. It’s a nice buzzing atmosphere full of fellow entrepreneurs all working hard to make their mark on the word. If I need some social interaction the headphones come off and boom, there’s lots of friendly people to surround me with noise. When I need to focus the headphones go on, with one of those playlists I talked about, and away I go, immersed in hours of productivity without the loneliness or silent abyss. Go co-working, I cannot recommend it enough, pick wisely and you’ll do fine!

As for family and friends, just be tough with them too and politely inform them of your business hours, they’ll take you seriously if you do.

Your social life will change.

How many clients have you got? Are you making enough money to pay the bills? How busy are you? Must be nice sleeping in!

Believe it or not these are all questions that were asked somewhere in the first two weeks of starting my own business. People seem obsessed with finding out how busy you are whilst seemingly secretly thinking you wake up at midday and work in your underwear. Be prepared. People will not always get it. If you’re taking a diet from the social norm and have decided not to boast about how incredibly busy and overworked you are, how you hate Monday’s, your boss, your colleagues or anything else, and if you’re responsible for your own pay check, good for you — just don’t expect everyone to get it.

Tip: when these inevitable questions arise don’t take it to heart, it’s sadly normal.

Being busy does not mean you are important.

Ask people about their day and more often than not you will hear, oh god i’m just so busy, things are hectic, where does the time go! I’ve realised there is an unequivocal assumption that…

busy = important and therefore busy = successful

This is not true. Since working for myself the past three years I have learn’t that many of the people who deem to be busy can also be likened to a treadmill, you can run around all day, flapping and fussing and squawking about life but that doesn’t mean you got anything done.

Tip: A key driver to success is your output, your ambition and the quality of what you produce.

Do what you love and the rest will come.

It’s all too easy to assume people that aren’t rushed off their feet aren’t motivated or successful, but as anyone who’s ever read the 4 hour work week might attest, perhaps they’re just more efficient with their time? If you find spare time, use this for creative thinking, don’t clutter it up with “feeling” busy. Open you mind to what could come next and give yourself the space to grow, away from noise.

How to survive?

So, how do you survive your first day working alone? Well, just as no one book is the same, neither are we, so my advice is based on what helped me and I advise you to adjust to what works for best you.

Top tips

  • Take it easy, it’s only your first day, take time to adjust
  • Work when you’re productive not when people think you should
  • Play music or podcasts that motivate you
  • Don’t allow yourself or others to distract you
  • Go co-working, to a coffee shop or anywhere that shakes up the scenery, it will refresh your brain and keep you focused
  • Separate where you work and where you chill or you’ll never switch it off
  • Always have remote meetings with the video on
  • Make a small list of tasks for the day that, when they get done, you can consider that day productive
  • Reward yourself for a productive day with a treat
  • Exercise, it clears the mind and motivates the soul

But most of all have faith in your idea, chances are it’s a good one and there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t get out there and build it, do it, see it!

Go get em…

“Action without vision is only passing time. Vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world” — Nelson Mandela

Hannah Cotterell

Owner: Hannah Cotterell Media

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +436,678 people.

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