independent work

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.

On Building Positive Structure and Getting Better Every Day

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

There Are Some Things $100 Million Can't Buy

Months ago there were a spate of articles in the Wall Street Journal about Mohamed El-Erian leaving his position as CEO of Pimco, one of the world's largest financial companies. I had never heard of him and I had only recently started reading the WSJ so I didn't really know Pimco, either. I do remember being struck by how surprised everyone seemed and how there was obviously something going on behind the scenes. Most people chalked it up to a clash of personalities between El-Erian and Pimco's co-founder Bill Gross and everything seemed to go quiet for a couple months.

A couple weeks ago El-Erian surfaced again and the full picture behind his departure is a little bit clearer:

About a year ago, I asked my daughter several times to do something -- brush her teeth, I think it was -- with no success. I reminded her that it was not so long ago that she would have immediately responded, and I wouldn't have had to ask her multiple times; she would have known from my tone of voice that i was serious.

She asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of her important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments.

Talk about a wake-up call.

Now he works as an economic adviser with Allianz and work takes up about 50% of his time.

From my perspective, this looks a lot like why many people choose to go into independent work. Granted, El-Erian is not a typical independent worker considering he made roughly $100 million last year. It's obviously easier (if not easier, at least more financially viable) for him to scale back his work hours and spend more time with his family.

On a very simple level, this is great evidence of what deliberate decision-making about work can look like. Regardless of our level in an organization or our income we can choose to think about what matters the most in our lives and then take steps to make decisions that support those values. The beautiful part is that this looks different for everyone. The only similarity that I'm pushing is the commitment to being deliberate about the course of action taken instead of locking into a groove and plowing away, heads down, for 40 years without taking a second to look around or ask some reflective questions.

What's the smallest step you can take to make your work more meaningful?

What's the smallest step you can take to make your work more enjoyable?

We can't all make $100 million a year or be CEOs of huge financial firms but we can all make deliberate decisions - even tiny ones - that better align our work, lives, and values.

Photo by Fortune Live Media

The List #14

Happiest of Fridays!

I'm going to kick off this week's The List by being a presumptuous ass and linking to my own article. I had the privilege of having my third article published at 99U. It's about this idea I've been obsessing about for awhile and is really hard to write about coherently. Basically, what does it mean to work with dignity? I'm impressed they decided to run it because it's not necessarily the type of article that's likely to go viral but I think the ideas behind it are really important. It would mean a lot to me if you checked it out.

Which Habits Should I Focus On? - Charles Duhigg

This is a great article from the guy who wrote the book on habits. It answers one of the most common questions clients of mine often have in a really articulate and intelligent way. If you're interested in habit change and are wondering where to start you could do much worse than checking out this article.

Silicon Valley's Contract Worker Problem - New York Magazine

The more I read about the sharing economy and services like Uber, TaskRabbit, and other platforms for "independent work" the more I'm realizing this isn't what I mean by independent work. Independent work deliberately chosen for the benefits one gains from working in this fashion is not the same thing as working for these various platforms as an independent contractor so these companies can get away with not paying benefits and the other responsibilities of having employees. I need to develop my thinking on this further but its articles like this that are causing me to pause and think.


What are the best things you read this week?

Photo by Nicolo Paternoster

The List #13

Since last week's List was a special positive-psychology edition a few of the articles I'm sharing this week are a little bit older. Doesn't mean they aren't awesome, though.

I also want to start casting my net a little bit wider when it comes to what I read on a regular basis so don't hesitate to share some of your favorite sources of reading in the comments or via Twitter.

Kick back with a cup of joe this weekend and enjoy some of my favorite articles from across the web.

America, Say Goodbye to the Era of Big Work - LA Times

I know this website does not appeal exclusively to independent workers -- and that's perfectly awesome. I'm interested in the idea of meaningful and engaging work regardless of the specific context. However, I do have a soft spot for articles about the growth of independent work as it is directly related to my academic/research interests.

The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit - GQ

This is just one of the most interesting articles I've read in awhile. Fascinating story about a guy who lived in the wilderness for an insanely long time. There's something about the need for solitude somewhere in here as well. But mostly it's just a really interesting story.

Reboot or Die Trying - Outside

I'm a sucker for stories about people doing things to take deliberate control over the role technology plays in our lives. Between this and the Distraction Free iPhone article (which inspired one of my articles from earlier this week).

John Cage on the Necessity of Boredom - Cal Newport

I feel like every time Cal writes something on his site I end up sharing it here. Obviously, I'm a bit of a fan of the stuff Cal does and how he writes about it. This is a super short one, but it's a great reminder for anyone trying to do creative and meaningful work.

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Photo by Jason Thompson

Workspace Optimization vs. Workspace Agnosticism

As it is with most personal development topics I think about, I'm finding myself wrestling with somewhat of a paradox. 

What's better, identifying and creating the optimal workspace for the way you work or cultivating the ability to work anywhere? Basically, focus on creating the best environment in which to do your work or focus on being comfortably location agnostic?

OPTIMAL WORKSPACE

If you have a lot of control over where and how you work (indie workers, I'm looking at you) then you've likely invested some time thinking about what your optimal workspace looks like (and if you haven't then now is a good time to start). From the tools you use to the chair you sit in to the color of your walls and the soundtrack (or lack thereof) of your office -- you have a lot of control over crafting it around your personality and needs. With systematic experimentation and an eye for what helps or hinders your productivity, you can create a veritable productivity haven built specifically to your whims. 

This is why my home "office" always has a large white board with my weekly calendar and major due dates within easy line of sight from where I sit, why I keep a very minimal desk with just my computer and whatever I'm currently working on on its surface, and why I am always listening to some kind of instrumental music. I know what I like, I know what I need, and I create my space to reflect that as much as possible.

LOCATION AGNOSTICISM

On the other hand, perhaps our time is better spent developing the abilities that makes our environment unimportant to how we work? If you're location independent in your work then it makes sense to be able to pack up and work from anywhere. Instead of spending time energy and money on creating the perfect home office, you can instead work from your kitchen table, the park, a coffee shop, and the library with equal productivity and happiness. How location independent can you really be if you can only work in a perfectly laid out office? 

If this sounds like the way to go, then you need to develop your ability to block out distractions and truly concentrate. You need to be able to work with only a minimal amount of tools as you aren't likely to be trucking around your complete arsenal of productivity materials. You need to be comfortable working from unknown locations and low strung enough that the occasional wi-fi outage or noisy cafe neighbor doesn't send your day into a complete tailspin.

FALSE DICHOTOMIES, FOR THE WIN

As with many dichotomies conveniently created for blog articles, this one is false. At least, to a large extent. While I can definitely see people falling more into one camp than the other, there's no reason you can't both create an awesome home base completely designed to your specifications and develop the ability to work productively from anywhere. 

The most important factor that cuts across both of these options, however, is self-knowledge. It's not about having one strategy that you stick to come hell or high water. It's about knowing yourself and what you need to work well to make good decisions about how you're going to work each day. If you know you need burning incense, instrumental music at precisely 45 decibels and a fuzzy cat in your lab to successfully write, then maybe it's best if you worked from home on those days. If you know your corporate office is a good place to knock out relatively menial and easy tasks but the worst place ever to sit down and think deeply about a problem, then it behooves you to find a better environment. At the same time, cultivating the concentration and focus necessary to be location agnostic in your work gives you the flexibility and peace of mind to work anywhere, under any conditions. It's up to you to know what your day demands, to know how you work best, and then take action to make that happen.

Do what you can to make your home base as productive as possible but don't forget that very rarely in the knowledge worker economy does work take anything more than a computer and an internet connection. Strive to be the master of your productivity kingdom and the slave to nothing.

Photos by Jared Schmidt and Onyx Mirror

 

Freedom on my Terms

Freedom is a word that drives almost everything I do. When I graduated from BGSU in 2009 and began the search for a teaching job, I don't think I had a very good handle on just how important this concept was to me. Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession that I respect to an almost reverant degree -- but it certainly isn't marked by a high amount of freedom. I quickly realized this when I took a good look at my schedule and realized there was no physical way for me to go to the bathroom for about four hours during my teaching day. There just wasn't time for me to go between classes due to the unhappy circumstances of classroom location and absurdly short passing time between bells.

For me, freedom is waking up every morning and getting to work on something that is mine. Not necessarily all day and it doesn't mean never doing anything for anyone else, but working on something borne of my own creativity and devotion. That led to the creation of this website and the growth of my business. It led me to graduate school to study the scientific discipline that helps me better understand how to help people. It explains why I'm sitting in a coworking space in Prague as I write this, working in the midst of other people who by choice or by circumstance are working for themselves. It's why the top of my list of research ideas sits the equation, "meaningful work = meaningful life". We spend the vast majority of our lives working. I want to help people make sure they're getting the most out of that time.

Freedom can be scary and not everybody values it as highly as I do. I certainly respect those who value the security of a salaried job and regular paycheck. I'm just glad I figured out that wasn't for me before I had bought so completely into the system that says that's what you're supposed to do that I never could've fought my way out. I'm excited that by creating my own freedom I can help other people find their freedom. Whether that's starting a business of their own or carving out their own definiton of freedom while working for someone else. I'm not here to define freedom for anyone -- only to help people find it once they've defined it for themselves.

Freedom. It's not a matter of being able to work from anywhere or never doing anything for anybody else. It's not about sticking it to the man or raging against the machine. It's about knowing what I'm good at, what I like to do, and combining them in a way that helps people and allows me to earn a simple living. Sometimes freedom is not knowing what the hell I'm doing or how I'm going to make something work. It can be a cycle between great ideas and difficult/impossible execution that can seem like a perverse perpetual motion machine of frustration.

But I wouldn't trade it for anything. And you shouldn't trade your freedom, whatever it means to you, for anything either.

Happy Independence Day to all my fellow American readers. Regardless of your national origin, think a little bit about what freedom means to you today. Can you take a step in a direction that will make you more free?Can I help?