May 2015

The Work Life Blend: How to Balance Work and Life When You Work For Yourself

By Katy Tynan

katyTechnology has blurred the lines between work and home. It's the tool that allows professionals to make the shift from being tied to an office to having the freedom to work from anywhere. But with this freedom comes the challenge of balance—if you can always access your work, how do you unwind? How do you get away from the office when the office is wherever you are?

This is a challenge that is particularly tough for independent actuaries, not only because they can work from their homes, but also because for most of us, our business is highly dependent on our own efforts. If we stop looking for new business, and if we stop doing work, even for a small period of time, the revenue stops flowing and the business grinds to a halt.

When you first get your independent practice off the ground, it's a constant struggle to get clients. As your business grows and becomes more successful, you may find that business comes to you through referrals, even when you are not out looking for it every day. In the course of the ebb and flow of work, you'll have busy times and less busy times. The trick to balancing your work and your life comes down to five essential habits.

Rest and recharge

Having a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and all of the other tools of the trade makes it incredibly easy to work anytime, anywhere. But it comes with a real and somewhat insidious downside. If you never stop working, you burn out, and you become incredibly inefficient and unproductive. In fact research has shown that spending more time with our technology causes us to have trouble relating to people in the real world. (MIT professor Sherry Turkle makes the case in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.)

Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that staying connected all the time is stressful. Yet even on vacation, people continue to stay connected. A whopping 83 percent of travelers planned to stay connected on vacation according to an American Express survey, and another 64 percent planned to check their work email every day! We feel like we have to stay on top of everything all the time, especially free agents who are often the only face of the company. Failing to respond to a client for a week or more can be deadly, so instead of proactively communicating to our clients that we'll be away, or making contingency plans so someone will respond to a crisis, we simply keep checking our email.

But that little habit is truly terrible for our brains. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is one of the many modern voices suggesting that constant connectivity leads to shallow interpersonal connections, stress, anxiety, and overall unhappiness. If we can't turn away from work for even a day, we put ourselves at risk of being profoundly unhappy both in work and in life.

Getting into the habit of turning off your work email on your phone over the weekend is a good place to start. While some of us do get client emails on Saturdays and Sundays, most working people don't expect a response until Monday. So while you may miss the occasional missive, for the most part there will be little or no impact on your business. And beyond turning off your technology, it's good to get into the habit of taking a break from work completely if you can. While it's tempting to take the time to do a little work here and there, failing to give your brain a chance to disconnect means missing out on an opportunity to recharge in a small way every week. And those small rests lead to more efficient and productive workdays.

Connect with other independent professionals

Most people working independently do so without the benefit of much, if any, formal training on how to be successful. We don't teach our kids how to run their own businesses in school, we don't talk about the freelance workforce in the labor market numbers, and there is simply not enough information and support from the education system on how to be a successful independent professional. That lack, combined with the fact that many freelancers work out of their houses, leads to a sense of isolation and a lack of knowledge sharing that can be incredibly discouraging.

Finding a community of free agents is one of the best things you can do to support yourself on this career path. Whether you do it through a meet up (start one if there isn't one in your area) or through a co-working community, or simply meeting with friends who also work independently, make the time to connect regularly with other professionals. These are the people who can offer guidance and support when things are tough, and who can celebrate with you when you have a win.

In addition to being a supportive community, a network of other independent professionals has the potential to become a consortium where you can share work, and even cover for one another for vacations or when things get busy.

Keep improving your technique

Many people who decide to become independent consultants do so because they have a passion for the craft. It might be enough for an employee to merely be good at their job provided that they can earn a living doing it, but to invest the time and effort required into managing your own business, you need to have passion for your work. One of the things that sustains passion over time is the ability to learn new techniques, and to get better at what you do, and this generally comes from investing time in professional development.

Professional development comes in a variety of flavors and forms. It can be formal training such as pursuing a master's degree, or it can be more informal, such as working with a mentor. But whatever the approach, keeping your skills fresh, and rekindling your love of the work is an important part of maintaining balance in your work.

As consultants, we often feel the pressure of trying to get as many hours of client work onto our schedules as we can. But in doing so we sometimes create a grind that undermines our enjoyment. No one likes to do a mediocre job at something they truly enjoy, and so when we push too hard to fit in plenty of clients, we sometimes don't give ourselves enough time to do a great and satisfying job.

The balancing act of making time for self-improvement includes both finding opportunities to learn new and better ways of working and allowing enough time in your own schedule to be able to be innovative and creative. Often trying a new technique means being a little inefficient as you get used to a new way of doing something.

Have Fun

There’s an old saying that when you’re up to your neck in alligators, it can be hard to remember that you originally planned to drain the swamp. The point of developing balance is to retain or rekindle the joy you feel in doing good work. In Daniel Pink’s TED talk on the surprising science of motivation, he discusses how people doing creative work are generally motivated intrinsically rather than being pushed by the desire to earn more money. This is particularly true for people who work independently. So the reason for pursuing balance in work and life is not about dividing your time equally between the two, but finding the blend that allows you to not just make a living but have a life too.

Katy Tynan is an expert on how work is changing. She is the author of the new book Free Agent: The Independent Professional’s Guide to Self-Employment Success, from CRC Press. She is a founding partner of Liteskip Consulting Group and MindBridge Partners. Visit Katy’s Amazon page, her website, or connect with her on LinkedIn. @katytynan