You got to hold the frame – Avoiding burnout or Lessons learned from six years as an independent consultant

Published on 8 May 2017 , last updated on 21 May 2017

There’s a scene in the 1987 classic movie Dirty Dancing in which Johnny (Patrick Swayze) explains the concept of dancing space to Baby (Jennifer Grey).

“Lock your frame. Lock it, lock it, lock it.
Look. Spaghetti arms.
This is my dance space, this is your dance space.
I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.
You got to hold the frame”

Johnny, Dirty Dancing

Baby, who is a quick learner, later makes fun of this:

I’ve been “my own boss” for over six years and it took me until now (and an episode of intense exhaustion which I luckily identified as being one step too close to burnout) to realize that being independent also means that the most valuable asset in the business is myself – physical and mental health included.

In this article I want to share what I’ve learned, habits I’ve taken and changes I’ve made in relation to working as an “independent” (i.e. be a one person company). If you’re working on your own or if you’re planning to take the leap I hope that these writings can be of use.

Time

Business Time and Client Time

The field in which you work or focus that you have influences the type of commitment that are commonly available when working as an independent. In my field for example, it is going to be more likely for me to work full-time on a project for a few weeks or months rather than half a day here for one client and half a day there for another one, etc. I think that when making the change from employee to independent it is easy to not see that the rules of the game have changed and to continue seeing client projects as the main “work”, forgetting that there are more things to running a sustainable (solo) business other than writing invoices and filing taxes.

What I mean by Business Time is therefore the set of activities that any business does but that larger businesses have entire departments busy with. Marketing, pre-sales, client relations (keeping in touch with former clients), finances, the list goes on. In the IT field it is relatively easy to say that you don’t really need all of that and that you work through an agency / head hunting company and if it works for you it is fine. I personally never have worked through an agency and don’t plan on doing so for as long as possible, I’ve found the practices and the worldview of these types of businesses in the IT industry to be somewhat off-putting.

As independent in the IT field, business life is a bit like the pendulum described by Schopenhauer “pain and boredom” – only that pain can be substituted by “too much work” and boredom by “no work at all”. It’s either 120% or not enough. Key to running a sustainable independent business is to keep doing all the “business” work whilst also working on client projects. This is difficult of course if the client commitments are full-time as this takes most of your time. So what to do?

Avoid client projects that will take 100% of your time available for work

If in any way possible, make it clear that you can’t be there for the entire duration of the week because hey, you also have to run a business on the side. If you’re in direct contant with the client this is I believe easier to achieve than when working through a recruitment agency, after all they also run a business and they completely understand that this means more than just working for their clients.

Even if it is tempting to work as much time as possible for paid work, this only pays off on the short term. When the contract is over you may find yourself without anything else lined up and all the extra money you have made will just vanish as a resulting of the time passing until you find new work.

You got to hold the frame and make time for keeping in touch with clients, finding new prospects, learning about that new technology that looks promising, going to conferences, networking, and so on.

Reserve some of your most creative time for your business

Mornings are in my experience the time when I’m the most creative. There are other spots during the day, but these are more like islands of at most 90 minutes during which I can get a whole lot of things done in a very focused manner. With mornings I mean early mornings. When I wrote Reactive Web Applications there was a period of time when I got up at 5 AM, got to my desk and wrote until 8 AM. This has been by far the most productive time in my professional life so far.

I’m not saying that you should use this “high quality” time only on your business – surely your clients deserve some of it as well. But do make sure that you keep some of it for your own business.

Pro tip: if you plan on getting up at 5AM to do some work, don’t start with emails. Turn the damn internet connection off and use your brain to think.

Business hours

It is a very seducing idea that when you have found your true passion, work doesn’t feel like work anymore therefore it is okay to spend all of your time doing it. It took me six years, numerous fights with my wife and an flirt with burnout to realize that this very seducing idea is, in fact, bullshit.

Depending on your situation in life (living alone, in a couple, with kids, etc.) you may be able to have a different set of working hours available to your clients. You may even be super flexible and think that being super flexible and reading work emails in bed is a good idea.

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion definition”. If you work as an independent, your biggest business asset is yourself. Reading work emails in bed right before sleep is not healthy.

Make sure you establish working hours. Communicate them with your clients to make expectations clear. And then stick to them.

You got to hold the frame.

(note: I am not saying that you shouldn’t be passionate about your work. By all means, find something that you enjoy doing and that gives your life meaning. Just don’t get lost in it.)

Place

Let me start with a bit of personal history of “working spaces”.

As a student, my computer was on my desk not to far of my bed, crammed in a rather small (but cheap) room.

When I first moved to Vienna together with my girlfriend I had a little desk in our sleeping room.

When we moved into our second flat, I had a whole room for myself (with an “office” sticker on the door that the cats couldn’t bother to notice – we still have the cats, but they have outgrown the desk space).

The place we now live in has a separate room at the back of the garden (some of my friends call it the “git hut”). It’s got electricity, water, heating, coffee and a sit-stand desk with two monitors on which I am currently typing (the picture was taken before we moved in).

Next to this I also rent a spot with meeting rooms (the git hut is not that great for having client meetings) in an architecture office which has a nice view and a high ceiling.

So what did I learn?

Create a physical boundary between your work place and your rest place

The bigger the boundary, the better (but avoid long commutes).

Working in the same room as where you are sleeping is not a good idea. Seriously, don’t do it. Maybe it kind of works when studying but quite frankly, it’s not a very good idea. Sleeping in the same place as work thoughts floats around in the air isn’t all that great for sleep, at least in my opinion

Working in the same flat as you are living is not a good idea, even less so if you’re not living alone. Your partner will have a hard time understanding that you are not really there. And the temptation to just do “one little more thing” before going to sleep (and spending 3 more hours in front of the computer). When you have kids, just forget it, you’re not going to get any kind of work done whatsoever when the kids are at home.

Working in a “git hut” is already an improvement, but there is one catch: there is no transition time from “being at work” and “being at home”. This has become problematic to me with the birth of our first child since there isn’t any time to “chill” once home – the routine kicks in right away (this is much harder to understand when you don’t have kids – my past self did not get it either). It took me some time to realize that not being able to let my mind switch contexts after work was making me all cranky and not quite ready for the evening routine. As a result I am now also working from another place from time to time which forces me to actually go home (about 20 minutes of commute). And when I do work from the git hut, I try very hard to leave earlier and walk for at least 15 minutes before coming home.

Protect your work space from interruptions

When we were living in our second place in Vienna (the one with the “office room” I started my first start-up and for some time worked in a co-working space. It turns out that whilst the space looked gorgeous, set in a former cinema (one of those really old ones, with balconies and such), the open floor plan setting wasn’t that great for work. It’s hard to perform the necessary voodoo incantations on a set of stubborn MongoDB arbiters gone rogue in the right order to convince them and elect a new leader when there’s three people making jokes about god knows what in loud voice 2 meters from your desk. Open floor plans, be it in co-working spaces or in companies are one of those things that future generations will read about in disbelief in history class. Just as walking in the streets of cities without sewer systems, working in an open-space office isn’t all that great.

Tools

I used to think that it was great to be able to use one phone to read my personal emails, my business emails and be online on Google Talk / Hangouts / Slack / Telegram / Signal / Messenger / Twitter / Skype / etc. all the time.

It turns out that not only is this a bad idea on the long run, but also it turns out to be very hard to get rid off. See, those smartphones and all of those interruptions are highly addictive and the mental effort to exert control over not checking emails / Twitter etc. is high. We only have so much willpower during the day, and especially when tired it is so easy to slip back into the mindless loop of checking if anything new happened on the internet every five seconds.

I tried getting rid of having a smartphone entirely but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I have, however, successfully removed all work related things from my personal phone and moved them to a business phone: e-mail, messengers (Slack, Skype), banking applications for business accounts, etc. are now all on a cheap and small Android phone that I carry around during business hours and turn off after work (I don’t have a separate phone number for it, just a second SIM card with the same contract).

I don’t have a personal computer yet, but it turns out that for most communication a smartphone or tablet is enough (I have no good solution for pictures yet nor how to manage family photos and centralize them from all sorts of devices. If anyone has please let me know).

But you get the idea. Removing the temptation of checking business-related things when with your family or friends gets much easier when it is not possible to do so at all.

You got to hold the frame.


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3 Comments

  1. Very nice post, covering a lot of issues I have faced during my 5 years as a consultant. It’s so hard to detach – you’ve mentioned some excellent methods for tackling the problem.

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