I'm a huge proponent of helping independent workers build what I've started calling "positive structure" into their work life. In all the interviews and research I've done on independent work one conversation keeps happening:
Me: "What didn't you like about your 9-to-5 job? Why did you start this independent job?" Them: "I hated the structure! I hated having to always do things the way someone else told me!" Me: "What's tough about working on your own now? Is there anything difficult about being an independent worker?" Them: "I have no structure!" Me: "Hm."
The independent workers I've talked to who seem the most satisfied in their work are the ones who have thought about the type and extent of structure they want to exist in their working life. The ones who struggle have never sat down and asked themselves how they actually want to work.
What follows is a list of questions that might help you build some more positive structure into your day. I'm not saying you need to go through all of these and have an in-depth response for each. I'm saying that if you feel like your day-to-day is lacking some structure these are the questions I think you should start answering.
And really, the vast majority of these are relevant to everyone, not just independent workers.
- When do you wake up? How do you wake up? Why?
- What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Why?
- How do you spend the first fifteen minutes of your work day? Why?
- How often do you take breaks? Why?
- When do you do the different types of work that make up your job? Do you tend to do certain types of work on certain days or during certain times? Why?
- When do you feel like you're "at your best" during the day?
- When do you take a lunch? What do you do during lunch? What do you tend to eat? Where do you go? Why?
- Do you take naps? When?
- What do you do when you come back from lunch? Why?
- What do you do when you're feeling drained in the afternoon? Why?
- When do you stop working for the day? How do you know when you're done for the day?
- What is your end of day routine?
- Do you allow yourself to do "work stuff" after the end of the day? Why or why not?
- What do you do before bed?
- What is your sleeping routine like?
- What do you wear when you work? Why?
- How do you plan out your weeks?
- Do you work anywhere else other than your house? Where? Why?
- How do you connect to other people in your field?
- When do you step back from the day-to-day and make big, strategic plans?
- Do you like the tools you use on a daily basis? Do you understand how to use your tools to their fullest extent?
- Is your desk set up to be optimally ergonomic and comfortable?
- Is your working environment enjoyable? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you have natural sunlight? Do those things matter to you?
- When do you take vacations? What are they like? Do you work during them?
- Do you do all your work at your desk? Are there certain things you do that could be done more optimally somewhere else? Even somewhere else in your house?
- How do you make sure your skills are kept up to date? What do you do for professional development? When do you do it?
- Do you have a routine for getting yourself "in the zone"?
- What are the most frequent distractions or interruptions you face on a daily basis? Can you do anything to eliminate or reduce them?
- Do the things you do for leisure actually rejuvenate you?
- Do you try to hold yourself to a normal working schedule or are you more flexible about when you work? Or does it change on a daily basis? How do you decide this?
- How do you schedule meetings? Does that process work well for you?
- When do you like to have meetings? When do you like to do your "hard" work?
- What do you hate to do? What can you do to make it a little less distasteful?
- Do you ever reward yourself? How? When?
I don't think any of these questions have an obvious or even "right" answer. I think the unique way each of us answers these is what's beautiful about work. We each have the space and the ability to bring our own preferences and proclivities to the way we carry ourselves through our days.
The one bit of advice I would give, however, is that each of the answers to these questions should be played and experimented with. If you found yourself answering, "I don't know" to any of these then you should try something. It really doesn't matter what. Do whatever sounds good, do what a friend does, do what you think you "should" do, or do the opposite of what you think you "should" do. Like I said, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you start playing with decisions and the reality that end up comprising your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what doesn't work for you. Get in there, make a mess, learn something about yourself, and maybe bring a little more of your best work into the world.
We all benefit from each of us getting better.
Photo by Herr Olsen