Four Ideas We Must Not Take For Granted as Indie Workers

Check out Part 2 here.

As independent workers we often have a great amount of control over how we work. We usually don't have to commute to an office, there's no boss peering over our shoulder, and we have nearly full discretion over the myriad of little decisions that make up our day-to-day work lives. However, sometimes I'll talk to an indie worker who has been doing it for awhile I'm surprised by how much it sounds like they work a normal 9-to-5 office job. Or, more commonly, I'll talk to a brand new indie worker and the only difference I'll hear between how they work and a traditional employee is that pajamas and slippers are part of the equation. How can both examples of indie work gone wrong be improved by thinking more carefully about what they're taking for granted?

It's up to you as an indie worker to craft the career and work style that fits you and your inclinations the best. A good place to start in this crafting process is rethinking these six taken for granted components of "normal" work.

The Five Day Work Week

A great article from Slate was making the rounds last week about why we should abolish the five day work week. Granted, I don't see society making any wholesale shifts to another model any time soon, but that's not to say you can't experiment with different formats a little bit, right?

What if you tried utilizing a work schedule that fits better with how you like to work and your natural cycles of productivity? What if you did a two days on, one day off, model? Or three days on, one day off? Or ten days on and three days off? Or literally any other configuration you can think of? If you have the flexibility to do so, why not try a different mode each month for the rest of the summer and then make an informed decision about what works best for you?

One thing I've been doing recently is moving one of my off/weekend days into the middle of the week when I'm planning on doing some kind of leisure activity that involves going somewhere. Going to the beach, camping, or visiting a museum are all likely to be much less crowded on a Tuesday afternoon than a Saturday afternoon.

Obviously, the thing that makes the five day workweek unlikely to disappear is also what makes it hard to follow any other kind of model -- particularly if you have a family or interact with non-indie workers on any kind of regular basis. Your kids' school isn't going to drop the five day week any time soon so changing your own work week may not make a ton of sense. If you have the autonomy, though, I recommend at least playing around with some other ways of working to see what works best for you.

The Office

Traditional employees generally have an office where they go every day to complete their work. Most indie workers, at least indie workers that work from home, also have a single office where they complete all their work. Chances are you're doing lots of different types of work throughout the day -- brainstorming, writing, responding to email, taking a break, focusing deeply, doing creative work, doing detail-oriented work -- so why would one location with unchanging attributes be the ideal place to do all this work?

I've experimented with having different places in my home be reserved for specific kinds of work. For example, when I'm reading I try to move away from my main desk and sit in one of the chairs in my living room. Another thing I'll do is take my iPad and a notebook to a local café (within walking distance which is part of the reason why I think this works) when I need to do some high level brainstorming or planning. Something about changing my environment and getting a little bit of exercise seems to be conducive to that type of work. A local coworking space could also fill this role if you purchased a membership where you only come in a couple times a week or only for a few hours at a time.

The basic idea is that as indie workers we generally have a lot of control over where we work and I don't think most of us takes advantage of this. Joel Runyon shared a method of utilizing different locations to stay productive by actually planning out his days around commuting to various locations. According to him, moving locations a couple times a day helps him focus and get more work done in less time.

There's one big caveat to this idea I have to share, though. I actually really like the idea of cultivating the ability to work in any location regardless of its characteristics to hurt or help my work. I'm wary of becoming so persnickety about my work location that I feel like I have to be in the "right environment" in order to do good work. To fight that I'll occasionally work in annoying conditions just to cultivate my ability to do so. Maybe I'm just weird?

Productivity as Best Measured by Time

"I had a pretty good day -- worked around nine hours or so."

I find myself saying things like this far more often than I'd like. Why? Because I think one of the ultimate perks of being an indie worker is liberating ourselves from the clock when it comes to thinking about our productivity (I recently wrote about my struggles with time as an indie worker so if you want a more in depth look at my thoughts on the matter I recommend checking it out.). When we have so much autonomy and voice in how we think about and do our work why do we constantly fall back to measuring ourselves by how much time we spent "at work"? It's easy. It's simple. It's what everyone else in the world does. And we must break ourselves of this habit.

Cal Newport shared an excellent equation to explain how work is accomplished; work = time spent x intensity. Most of us just hammer away on the "time spent" portion of the equation. If we just put in more hours we'll get more done. And we do get more done, to a point. However, we could be so much more effective by amplifying our intensity. Most of us have a ton of space to grow in this domain and we are leaving productivity, and more importantly hours that could be spent with our families or hobbies, on the table by not working more intensely. Tony Schwartz argues we should be thinking about how we work in terms of energy management and not time management. I couldn't agree more. By cycling between short but very intense bouts of work followed by highly effective recovery we will be able to accomplish much more in much less time.

Distractions As Inevitable

This is a slightly misleading header because distractions are a part of life. However, they don't have to be nearly as large a part of life as most of us allow them to be. One of the biggest sappers of intensity (remember, work = time spent x intensity) are all the interruptions and distractions that are constantly competing for our extremely limited attention. When you're an employee there is a certain amount of distraction you may be expected to put up with such as someone coming into your office or leaning over the cubicle to ask a question. As an indie worker you have much more control over this than the typical employee -- so use it!

A good starting point is to turn off almost all of the notifications that come in via your mobile and computing devices. There is very little you need to know the moment it happens. Twitter mentions, Facebook comments, and Instagram likes do not happen to fall into that category (and if you disagree you might need to rethink the seriousness of which you take your work...). Every notification that tears your attention away from the task at hand is like a tiny needle poking a hole in your inflatable raft. By itself it's probably not enough to make you sink but over time enough pokes will result in you treading water.

To give you a sense to the extent I go to eliminate distractions before getting to work I'll share my basic routine below (remember, I'm trying to create the environment for a high intensity and fairly short bout of focused work). I'll turn on the app called Self Control on my computer which blocks me from all distracting websites for a set amount of time. I'll turn off the wireless connection on my computer, iPad, and iPhone (my music playlist is accessible offline). I'll set a timer for ten minutes before the next thing I have to do, or if there's nothing on my calendar I'll set it for an hour or so. I'll open the program I need to complete my work, in this case Write Room, and make it fullscreen. If a thought comes to mind or I feel like I should do something else during the work session I'll hit the keyboard shortcut to bring up the Quick Entry input box for Things and add it to my inbox. The rest of the time I'll just work as quickly and intensely as possible without looking at the clock or checking social media or checking my inbox or really anything else until the timer goes off. Is this too intense? Too weird? If your ability to support yourself and your family depends on your ability to complete great work as quickly as possible then I don't think anything is too weird or intense.

Distractions become much more meaningful and worth eliminating when you've made a commitment to finishing a certain amount of work in a day, not just "working" eight hours. In the former case, every distraction is pushing the end of your day further away. In the latter, a distraction (that friend from high school liking the photo of you fake kissing the fish you caught) is at the same level of everything else you're trying to accomplish (like the work you've invested years of your life into learning how to do in order to create a meaningful career).

Those don't seem very equal to me.

It can be easy to lapse into treating your indie career like a traditional 9-to-5 office job -- especially if you have experience as an employee. It's what everyone else does and maybe even what you've done for years of your professional life. Remember, as an indie worker you likely have to deal with a lot more uncertainty and stress than the typical employee so make sure you're utilizing the advantages that come with this style of work, too.

What else do we need to rethink about work as indie workers? I'd like to write a Part Two to this article and would love to include some of your ideas.

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Photo by Mark Hunter