How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career

A while back I was asked to record some lectures for the en*theos Academy. A few weeks ago I found out they were closing that aspect of their business and that I would be allowed to use the material I created for them anywhere I like.

The format en*theos liked to use was 10 main ideas that we would write up in a short article and then expand upon in the video (which is why this article is in a little different format that I normally write).

I don't think I've ever shared a long-form video like this before so I'd be interested to hear what you think.

If you can't see the video below click here to watch it.


[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6wgQdNU49k&w=640&h=480]

Introduction

Being an independent worker can be hard. It’s not all pajamas, slippers, and taking phone calls on the beach. You may not have a boss or work in a cubicle like the typical knowledge worker but you also don’t have access to a lot of what can make work enjoyable; clear feedback, enjoyable colleagues, helpful structure, organizational resources, and everything else you forfeit working for and by yourself.

Here are ten ideas from my own experience as an indie worker and psychology researcher that might make your work life more successful and enjoyable.

1. Create Flow in Your Work

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a founding father of positive psychology and one of my advisors, is known for his work on the idea of “flow,” otherwise known as the psychology of optimal experience. If you’ve ever felt “in the zone” or completely engrossed in an activity then you know what flow feels like and why it’s an awesome thing to strive for in our work.

There are three things that need to happen in order for you to find flow in whatever you’re doing. First, you need to find a balance between the challenge of the task at hand and your skill in that activity. Second, you need clear feedback as to whether you’re moving in the right direction. Last, you need clear goals. When these three requirements are met you’re much more likely to find yourself getting immersed in the task at hand.

2. Use Your Strengths

Your strengths refer to the natural ways you prefer to think and act. You have a unique mix of strengths that inform the types of work you prefer to do, how you approach that work, and what you find enjoyable in life. Identifying your strengths and then figuring out ways to build more opportunities to use those strengths in how you work has been empirically shown to increase job satisfaction and job performance.

The Gallup organization has an assessment tool called StrengthsFinder 2.0 that helps you identify you strengths. Additionally, positive psychology researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman developed a list of 24 character strengths and a survey to help you figure out what your top strengths are. Try taking one, or both, of these assessments and then spend some time figuring out how to utilize your unique strengths more often in your work.

3. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Psychologists have identified two different “mindsets” that most people fall into. You can have what they call a “fixed mindset” in which you believe your abilities and intelligence are fixed quantities and there isn’t much you can do to increase what you currently have. The other type is called a “growth mindset” and these people tend to think of their abilities and intelligence as similar to muscles that can be developed through training. If you have a fixed mindset you tend to avoid difficult situations (because what if you don’t have enough ability to handle it?!) whereas those with a growth mindset tend to thrive in and seek out difficult situations.

Succeeding as an indie worker almost requires a growth mindset. Unless you’re happy with not raising your rates or working on more interesting projects, you must develop a growth mindset. Luckily, according to research the first step in developing a growth mindset is simply learning about the difference between the two!

4. Use Self-Leadership Strategies

Self-leadership simply refers to your ability to get yourself to do the things you need to do. You can think of these strategies as falling under three types: cognitive thought strategies, natural reward strategies, and behavioral-focused strategies.

Cognitive thought strategies refer to how you think about your work, especially in terms of self-talk and framing. How do you think about your work in relation to everything else going on in your life? Natural reward strategies refer to finding positive feedback in the actual task at hand. Maybe you turn on some tunes while you’re scanning paperwork or have a specific podcast you listen to only when doing a certain tedious task? Finally, behavioral strategies refer to raising self-awareness and using environmental cues to get stuff done.

5. Develop Your Psychological Capital

Business writers like to write about human capital, social capital, and economic capital. As an indie worker you don’t really have a ton of those, though. Instead, what really matters is your own individual abilities and psychological well-being – your psychological capital. In the psychology literature psychological capital (PsyCap) is comprised of four constructs: self-efficacy, resilience, hope, and optimism. When these four constructs come together they make up your overall propensity to accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

Which of these four is currently lacking in the way you think about yourself and your work?

6. Evolve Your Habits

Everything we do is built upon the foundation of our habits. Without habits you would be cognitively overwhelmed trying to remember what to do every day. Some habits come easy to us (I’m guessing you brush your teeth before bed every night without thinking about it too much) whereas others are much more difficult to cultivate (going for a run every day or writing 1,000 words or nearly anything else connected to running a successful business).

When thinking about your habits try to identify something you already do every day you can use as a trigger for a habit you want to develop. If you can identify a trigger and then connect the intended habit to that trigger you have a much better chance of successfully making it happen.

7. Become a Craftsman (or Craftswoman!)

When you think of somebody working on their craft chances are you’re thinking about someone working with their hands. Craftsmanship usually refers to the highest level of attention to detail, care, and skill placed in the creation of a product. While the typical craftsman may be working with wood or other physical material, there’s no reason the same mentality can’t apply to knowledge work.

One thing you’ll notice when watching a craftsman at work is how seamlessly he or she uses tools. The tools are like a natural extension of their body. How true is this for the tools you use in your work? Do you know every keyboard shortcut for all the software you use on a regular basis? The difference between being able to leave your hands on the keyboard to complete common tasks and having to constantly use your mouse can be surprisingly large. A true indie work craftsman is a wizard with his tools – are you?

8. Focus on Process Over Product

Think about the two types of goals you could set in any situation. One goal refers to the end result such as, “I want to write a book.” The other type of goal refers to a behavior in which you partake, “I will write 1,000 words every day.” I think the latter, or what I call a “process goal” is much more useful for indie workers.

The problem with the first kind of goal is that you can’t truly do it. You can’t just sit down and write a book and therefore it can be hard to know if you’re making progress. On the other hand, setting a process goal is much more attainable and actually helps you develop a habit in the process. If there’s a goal you’ve been struggling with for awhile try changing your perspective and setting a process goal instead.

9. Build Reflection into Your Routine

Sometimes I call reflection the “alpha habit.” Everything has to start with regular reflection first. Without regularly reflecting on what you’ve done in the past you’re doomed to repeat mistakes and miss opportunities for development.

In order to make sure I’m making the time to step back and reflect on my work I’ve scheduled a series of reminders into my task management software. For example, I have a Weekly Review which is very task-focused, a Monthly Review which takes a closer look at my ongoing projects, a 3-Month Review where I look at my areas of responsibility, and a Yearly Review where I look at my overall vision and long-term goals. These pop up automatically in my task management software and it forces me to take a step back from the nitty gritty to make sure I’m on the right path.

10. Self-Experiment

There are literally hundreds of ways you can change your daily routines, approaches to work, strategies for productivity, and techniques for improving your life. The only way to know if something is going to work for you is to try it. Not everything that works for me will work for you and many things that didn’t work for me may end up being exactly what you need. Try brainstorming a list of things you want to try and then systematically try them out over a period of time. I like to do weekly trial runs of small changes/experiments as well as monthly experiments for larger ideas.

If you can collect data on yourself using some kind of tool, that’s awesome. At the very least, take time to reflect during the trial period to see what effect the change is having on you. At the end of the experiment, decide if the change is worth keeping part of your life full-time and then try something new!

Conclusion

The beautiful thing about being an indie worker is that you have the freedom to work any way you want and the frustrating thing about being an indie worker is that you have the freedom to work any way you want. With the right strategies in your toolbox and the willingness to try some new things you can craft a way of working that lets you do your best work while also retaining your sanity. Which of the concepts I introduced above do you think may have the biggest impact on how you think about your work?


Enjoy these ideas? Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook if you want to chat about them or anything else.