Struggling to focus? Find what works for you
Don't fall for articles suggesting "THIS ONE THING ALWAYS WORKS" or the "MUST DO TECHNIQUE USED BY ALL CEOS"... Finding things that work for you takes a bit of exploration and support.
There have been a number of conversations recently in the community around clients adding meetings to the calendar at the last minute; demanding a certain way of working; controlling how a project operates or defining things like payment terms. In each case, the individual has felt very on the back-foot, either not in control of the project or their own time, or in a position of being told what to do.
If there’s a majority reason for why people choose self-employment as a way of working, it’s about control - having more control over time, workload, projects, ways of working - but it’s also possibly the biggest myth about freelancing - in reality for many, working with multiple clients can often feel you’re even less in control of your time and workload, but rather at the whim of how you client wants to work.
Who hasn’t experienced having to join a new slack or teams account, or navigate a new client system, or fit into a client’s calendar?
Once the customer chooses what to eat, the Chef is in control of the kitchen
When you start working for yourself, we have lots to ‘unlearn’ from being in employment - the idea that you’re working in a place which has a certain way of working, structures, language, models, and certain power dynamics - you have a boss who tells/asks/expects certain things of you; you do them; you get paid. It’s so easy to keep that muscle memory in place when you move into self-employment, that the idea of saying ‘no’ sometimes doesn’t even pop in to your head.
Whilst there are some who would write: "Lay down the law! Tell them how you work and when you’ll be available!", it feels arrogant and tone-deaf to simply do what your client is doing, and demand they work in a certain way too, but there is something powerful in the mindset shift, from being a supplier: where you’re being able told what to do and when, to being a specialist: where you’re being asked for your advice and input.
Setting how you want to (and need to) work is one of the defining traits of self-employment, and critical to managing both your own mental health and productivity. Not having control over your workload puts you at risk of doing poorer work, but also burnout.
I always return to the restaurant analogy, as it’s a simple but effective one.
Imagine you’re going to a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner. Then imagine you walk into the kitchen, and start giving the award-winning chef guidance on how to prepare your meal. You just wouldn’t. You’re paying good money to experience the chef’s work as as specialist, not just as a resource to follow instructions and make food as a cook.
When you’re working with clients - are you behaving with the mindset of a cook or a chef?
Are you simply accepting instructions and working as a resource, or are you setting the tone for the relationship and defining how you’re going to prepare the work.
The end result will be the same - a fantastic meal, and that’s what the customer wants, but with a Chef’s mindset - you’re defining the how, where, when, and you’re in control.
Chefs still need to make money - no customers, no income - so it’s not about telling the customer what they want - the customer gets to choose which restaurant they go, what meal they’d like to eat: the what; but once the customer chooses, the Chef is in control of the kitchen: the how.
And there’s nothing wrong with being a cook - it’s where you learn your skills, and work towards being a fantastic chef. A cook mindset is about learning and developing under the guidance of someone. But it’s always to a defined recipe, to create consistent repeatable outcomes. If you’re a cook, you’ve got to be willing to be told when and where to put on your whites, and you’ll benefit from developing your craft. When you’re self-employed, and working with clients - learning and developing is critical too, but being told how to do your work is not that opportunity.
Identify how you work best and set your own boundaries:
Use tools like journalling to establish your own best working habits, schedules or energy levels to understand how you prefer, want or need to work. This can take time, but establish some principles for yourself, like “don’t accept a new meeting within 4 hours” or “mornings are for focus, afternoons are for meetings”.
Communicate your preferences:
Be clear on where your preferences lie when you start working with clients, so you’re not having to say ’no’, because they’re not suggesting it in the first place. Remember, these are preferences rather than demands, and be willing to be compromise if benefits both of you. Use tools like Manual of Me to share these preferences, or have a kick-off meeting where you share yours and ask for your clients too.
Automate the process
Use tools like Calendly - which allows clients to book meetings into your calendar where you’re free, and allows you to control when you’re willing to accept meetings. This creates flexibility for your client to choose when they speak to you, but gives you control over when you’re available.
Remind yourself - they’re asking for your help not your hours:
When feeling like you’re on the back foot, or they’re telling you how to work, remember they came to you for your expertise, and it’s down to you to define how you get there.
You don’t have to say yes:
you’re not an employee, and ultimately you’re in control of what work you do, and how you do it. You’re allowed to say no. You don’t have to be difficult, you can offer an alternative approach, you can work towards finding something that works for both of you.
There are not only emotional benefits to being more in control of how you work - but financial ones too. You'll not only be more able to manage multiple projects and efficiently fit different deadlines into your calendar, allowing you to deliver more revenue, but also control over the how you work is a signifier for IR35, and demonstrating that you define the how, where and when of how you work, not your client, is an important proof when defending your IR35 status.
In reality - there’s always going to be give and take, and the best freelancers build a strong respectful relationship with their customers, looking to find ways to collaborate, work effectively together, compromise where needed - things like diary management is almost always a nightmare, but if you’re constantly bending over backwards to accept clients demands ahead of your own, you will never have control over your workload, but be in a constant state of reactiveness - like being employed, but with five different bosses and with none of the benefits of employment.
So put on your Chef’s whites, fire up the oven, take control of the kitchen, and define how you want to make the best meals you can, because customers come back for the food, not the knives you chose to cut the carrots.
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