Finding flow so you can get your best work done. There's nothing like it, is there?
But it's tricky to get there. We think when we go out on our own that we'll just find this magical place. We're in charge. We can create just the right environment. But once we're on own on, it doesn't come as easily as we imagined.
Being prolific when you work for yourself challenges most solopreneurs in their first few years of business. When you work for yourself, figuring out your flow is no small deal. When you work for someone else, that issue is largely taken care of for you. Sure, you can lobby for a different setup but for the most part, it’s not up to you. You get assigned a work space, tools and have to make it work. In some ways, this reduces decision fatigue. When you work for yourself, you make all those decisions. And it can be overwhelming. Work at your kitchen table or buy a dedicated desk? Get a wooden desk or buy a cheap plastic one? Buy a nice chair or pluck one from the garbage? Listen to music or stay in complete silence? Work in the early morning or whenever you want? Set specific hours or leave thing more loose?
These are all questions you have to answer for yourself now that you’re the boss. The stakes are high. With no one else bringing in the business or doing the work, you have to figure out how to be productive — and fast. I got lucky. When I started my first business, it was the middle of a recession so I didn’t have a ton of extra money. This made decisions easy, allowing me to get to work right away.
My first home office was in a walk-in closet.
It wasn’t one of those big ones that’s practically a room all on its own. You know, the type you see on the Real Housewives of Some City or glamorous closet of a celebrity. It was more like a narrow but deep closet. It was decidedly not glamorous. I sat at my desk underneath shelves of my belongings perched perilously above my head, sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. My desk was two cheap mental filing cabinets with a piece of plywood. My desktop computer was so old I had to manually start the fan with a pencil every time I turned it on. Mostly I left my computer running for fear that it wouldn’t start again. My office mate, my cat, had his own perch, tucked into the corner next to me. Though my office was beautiful, nor perfect I was highly productive. It’s actually one of my favorite work spaces ever.
Over the years my work spaces have included a kitchen table, a marble desk built into the wall, a wrap-around desk in an office that felt like you were at seashore, and a beautiful, modern co-working space. When I first moved to New York City, we rented a desk at co-working space. We never went once. Then we got an adorable office at a popular co-working space in Manhattan. We figured we’d trade spaces — one in the home office while the other worked at the co-working space. We used this office more but the walls were glass which meant it was noisy and there was little privacy. Headphones helped but I found myself terribly distracted and uncomfortable. After a few months, we let the office go. Today my partner and I share a home office. It's a rare day when I can't find my flow. These five factors have helped that considerably.
Perfection - It's so easy to think if you can just make your environment perfect, you'll always be in the right mindset to do your best work. You can spend lots of money (and time) furnishing an office. For your first work space be careful how much you put into it until you know what works best for you. In the beginning, be wary of letting this consume your precious time. Just do enough so that you can be effective without it derailing from more important tasks like filling your sales pipeline, working with customers or creating processes so you can be more efficient. Be wary of trying to make all the conditions perfect. Perfection can be an insidious form of procrastination. Don't break your brain or the bank worrying about office perfection. I spent less than $100 furnishing my walk-in closet office. If I can start my first business with a piece of plywood, two filing cabinets and rickety computer and find my productivity zone — so can you.
Space - The main role of your office is productivity. Don't worry about the size of your space. Same to with your desk. Whether it’s s standing desk. wooden desk or treadmill doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even have to be a desk at all. I’ve worked from tv trays and laptop desks perfectly fine. All that matters is that you do your best work from it. Your office doesn’t have to be anyone else’s idea of productive, beautiful or right. Though I would get dizzy trying to work at a treadmill desk, it works for some. Who am I to say what’s right for you? For instance, VP of Engineering at Slack, Michael Lopp's home office where he does all his writing is blood red. It’s perfect for him. I’ve got a plaster deer head with gold antlers in mine. When I need to get lost in thought, I sit back and stare at it. Make your space pleasing for you. Whatever that looks like. Do not listen to what "they" say.
Priorities - Sharing a work space with a partner has helped me prioritize and fast. When I first moved in with my partner we struggled with how to allocate time in the office. Being introverts used to plenty of time alone, we were challenged to find the balance. Most often we weren’t selfish enough, instead giving the other time in the office we desperately needed to get our most important work done. We also needed alone time with a closed door for rejuvenation — something many solopreneurs underestimate the need for. Not having unlimited time at my desk has forced me prioritize my work and understand its hierarchy. It taught me to create office hours. The thing I didn't know I needed but can't live without now.
While you might have total access to your office, you’ll still want to create office hours. These hours are dedicated to your most important tasks. There are two kinds of essential work that require being in your flow.
1) The work you do for your business, rather than for your clients.
Most of us get our client work done at the expense of building our own business. One reason we do this is when we see ourselves as freelancers. I know, I’ve already infamously talked about this but there’s another reason it's important. If you think of yourself as a freelancer, you’re more likely to find yourself in employee mindset, not taking work for your own business seriously. This means your client is the priority — and gets the best out of you. When you see yourself as a business owner, you put your business first.
When thinking about your office hours, separating the work for your clients vs. working on your own business is critical. You likely won’t have to set hours for client work — that will just come in naturally through your inbox, Slack or meetings. It's more important to set dedicated hours to work on your business. Whatever the amount you set, make them distraction-free and during the time of day when you’re best. Once you set your hours, make them inviolate -- nothing should take you away from your office during this time.
2) Tasks that require your complete and utter concentration.
When you work for yourself, you wear so many hats to run your business — and those hats might benefit from different working spaces. Sheer numbers of hours is far less important than what you put into those hours. Not all work requires the same amount of attention. Prioritizing tasks requiring complete concentration will boost your productivity. These tasks might include: coding, writing or business strategy. Again, you’ll want to make a separate time for your own business, not just for your client work.
Using your dedicated office hours in this way will have a remarkable effect on your productivity.
External interruptions happen frequently - even when you work for yourself. Have a way to signal to others distraction-free time. Often putting on headphones can be a strong signal that you don’t want to be disrupted. I’ve been tempted to put a recording light outside our office — you know, like the ones they use at recording studios to signal distraction-free zones. Whatever signal you choose, be sure to tell your family, spouse or anyone in the vicinity the rules for interrupting you. In our work space, my partner and I agree that the person in the office isn’t to be disrupted unless they initiate contact. Communication during that time can only come through our shared Slack channel. So if I happen to be sitting at our kitchen counter — our other designated work space — I announce to him when I’m going into an hour-long writing zone and am not to be disrupted.
We often think external interruptions are the biggest problem but internal interruptions happen just as frequently. Your signals for others can signal to yourself that it's time to get serious about finding that work zone. Be sure to include internal interruptions when thinking about being productive in your work space. Consider email, social media, your phone and the like when trying to eliminate internal distractions. If done well, office hours should reduce these kinds of interruptions.
Being able to work anywhere is the height of finding the zone, where flow happens. You may not always have a dedicated space. Maybe you share an office like I do, or you have to travel frequently for your work. You have to find ways to get your work done no matter your location. If you aren’t able to have a dedicated work space in your home or at a co-working space, in some ways you’re lucky. When you have to move around, you quickly learn how to adapt, or you fail fast. You’ve already learned what you really need to get the job done.
If you have a primary space but need to work elsewhere on occasion, this section is for you. Think about the times when you’ve been most productive. What must be present for you to be effective? Experiment with these key components to find your flow state.
Find your top 3-4 essentials and make sure you have them wherever and whenever you’re working. For me, my laptop, noise-canceling headphones, a notebook and my favorite beverage are essential. Those four have been my constant companions as I worked from the beds of hotels, perched on a high top table and on plenty of planes. Having them means I can get into the flow just about anywhere I happen to be.
One more thing.
Sometimes flow isn't about being at your desk at all. Sometimes being effective comes from your time away. For me, getting on my yoga mat every morning is the most productive thing I can do all day. Now that's it's a regular habit, each time I step on my mind is prepared to go blank. In the stillness, new ideas emerge. Some of my best ideas actually. It's the one thing I never miss, no matter how busy my day or where I am even if it's only a brief session. Even those brief 20 minutes prime my body and brain to find that mental space I need to be my best. The gym, the trail, playing an instrument or even just air guitar in your living room, do whatever creates an empty space in your mind.
Once you find your zone, solopreneurship just might be your dream job.