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Back to work

Getting back on track after some time off can seem like really hard work - here are some of our top tips to get back into the swing of things when you're self-employed.

So you're filled with mince pies and perhaps not wholly rested but the laptop is back online, and the inbox is starting to fill up with emails again. Or maybe you've had a long summer break, and the idea of re-engaging the brain or Microsoft Teams fills you with dread.

Getting back up to speed after some time off can often feel like hard work, and often even harder for the self-employed, if the only person we've got to motivate us is ourself. Perhaps when you return to the office after a break, the shared slump helps everyone realise its okay to be a bit slow in the first few days - but when you're self-employed and facing a todo list, it can feel overwhelming, and its very easy to beat yourself up and not feel like you're being very productive.

We're here to tell you: you don't need to be 100% productive on your first day back, heck, you don't ever need to be 100% productive, but especially on those days you're returning from some time off. Here are our tips and techniques for going from 0% back into the swing of things, after a period of rest.

1/ Give yourself a workday without clients

Create time and space to work on your business, not your clients business

No matter how well prepared you were before the break, it's entirely possible that there's some life and work admin that needs to get done before you feel able to tackle client work.

Consider taking a day which is all about your business, rather than your clients' business.

Clear out the inbox, update the website, write a little plan for new business, reach out to some people you've not connected with for a while.

Spend a day without people chasing you, so you feel like you're on top of things before the floodgates open.

2/ Refresh yourself

Don't just jump in - give yourself a reminder of what's on your plate, and check in to see if its still relevant and important.

Take some time to review what you’re working on and brief yourself again - ask what is the intention, what have you been asked to do, how are you progressing, and what is left, so you have a clear picture of what’s next. 

Don't just jump back into the todo list - are there things which have been lingering below the fold for too long? 

Prune the tasks that you haven't got around to, and consider trashing things that you aren't prioritising or putting off, if they're not valuable to you.

It can be a good time to review your client relationships too - what projects are working for you and towards your goals, which boundaries need to be reset, what ways of working might need to be discussed or rescoped? The start of a new working period is always a great time to ask your client for some input and feedback to set good intentions for the coming months.

3/ Set an intention

Remind yourself of your purpose and direction with a simple intention for the coming months.

In this article from Lizzy Dening, pick a word of the year for yourself - a sort of intention setting exercise, which gives you a theme or idea to remind yourself of for the whole year. 

"Fluid" for example might help you remember to be more reflexive of changes that happen out of your control. "Committed" might help you remember to focus on one or two things, rather than if you've been exploring lots of different avenues. 

Share the intention with your communities, and discuss what it means to you, and what new behaviours you might want to explore this year.

4/ Say it out loud

Give yourself permission to switch from rest to work, and share that with others too.

As we’ve mentioned in our boundary setting technique, the “Put it away box”, combining a physical act and a mental act helps to really make things tangible, and returning to work is no different. Returning to the computer and just firing up your emails is a physical task, so introduce the mental aspect.

Before you start your first full day - either the night before, or in the morning before you start, say out loud: “I’m returning to work now! I’m back to my first full day, and it’s going to be a great first day back!”

You can take this further and spend a little time either meditating or intention setting for your first day back, and truly help your mind transition from holidays to productivity - there's an app called Aura which offers meditations for free.

And don’t just say it to yourself - let your clients and colleagues know you’re back. Drop them an email letting them know you’re returning to work, and what you’re excited to be working on, or perhaps check in on their holidays.

5/ Redesign your Day

Rethink how your day might need to work for this portion of your year.

Whilst the first day back might be full of energy, getting up a little earlier might be hard - and certainly will get harder as the week runs on. It’s possible that you’ve had a very relaxed, inconsistent or completely lacking schedule over the past weeks, so now is a great time to reconsider what your working schedule could be.

Don’t make the mistake of just assuming that what was working back in the summer is going to work for you now we’re in the middle of winter. You’ll have different energy levels, you might have different projects or new ways of working. Take some time to reflect upon what your schedule could be now, and re-establish it.

If you didn’t already, consider when you’re taking breaks, what your energy levels are like right now, and time for connecting with others. Not everyone needs to stick to a rigid schedule, but it can help having a sense of when you’re choosing to be working and when you’re not. Communicate that to others too - perhaps using your email signature, or even blocking out your calendar.

Whilst your energy levels are higher, consider adding a little time in your schedule for those things you were promising you’d do - like personal development, training, reflection and feedback, creative exploration, or just watching cat videos. Protect time to invest in you, not just the thing you’ve committed to do for your clients.

And finally - consider breaking your schedule in to smaller chunks, so you’re not blocking out whole days or half-days for specific tasks, but shorter bursts, like 45 minute or 90 minute sprints. Not only might it help your brain whilst it is reeling with having to work again, it’s also a proven more effective and sustainable way of working, using techniques like Pomodoro to work in smaller periods with rest between.

6/ Reintroduce the commute.

Create clear boundaries for your working day, to encourage the day to start (and end) well.

Whether or not you’re working from home, from an office, a shop, a farm, the beach or your sofa - the idea of a mental commute is a really powerful way of introducing a clear and tangible boundary between working and not working. 

We don’t mean getting on a bus or train for 45 minutes, but rather blocking out a period of time in your diary where you are clearly transitioning from ‘home’ to ‘work’ (no matter where you’re working from. 

Whether you use that time to listen to a podcast, to exercise, to daydream about the next holiday period, to internally argue whether hobnobs are superior to ginger nuts, or physically move from one space to another - the block of time is your physical and mental switch to move between states. 

We’ve got a longer guide on how to use this technique, but adding it back into your schedule is another marker that you’re returning to work with meaning.

Adding a commute is a way of establishing your boundaries - but not the only way, consider what techniques you have in place to clearly 'start' and 'end' the day - not matter what time your day starts and finishes. Having a clear boundary is one of the most essential ways to ensure you're able to wind down and don't end up burned out.

7/ Consider your working spaces.

You've probably had enough of home for a while, find new spaces and places for work.

Whilst working from home is easy and affordable, there's often massive value in working from somewhere that isn’t your home, especially for the helping you return to the working mindset. Even if you’re a die-hard WFH fan, and have your own space set up to work from, if you’ve been spending a great deal of time at home over the summer - consider boosting your return to work by spending a bit of time in a completely different space.

Try working from a space like a coffee shop or shared workspace for perhaps just the first full day of work, and use it like a mini ‘offsite’, where you’re taking time to plan ahead, get on top of your first day of tasks, reconnect with your clients, and focus on those first big steps. You could use this offsite with fellow freelancers to share your intentions, discuss opportunities and worries, or just help each other focus for the day.

You could establish a new routine where perhaps you work offsite for the Monday for focus work, Tuesday is back at home for meetings and emails, Wednesday could be face to face meetings - whatever works for you best. But moving to a new physical space can really help with resetting and switching from holiday to work. 

Start to build up a personal portfolio of options for a variety of ways of working - so if you feel the need to get out of the house, you’ve got a shortlist of places which you know you can turn to, rather than having to figure it out in the moment.

Even if you’re 100% working from home, use the time to reset your own working space. Perhaps move to work from a different location, tidy up the desk and rearrange the seating a little bit. Get yourself that new chair or monitor you’d promised yourself. 

8/ Set yourself a three month plan.

Medium term goals create structure whilst being achievable.

Don’t throw yourself back into business as usual from day one - try and use the restart as an opportunity to think ahead beyond this week, beyond this month - look towards the rest of the year, and establish a number of goals and milestones you’re looking to accomplish. They don’t need to be huge - but having some tangible goals to focus on can help you focus and prioritise your efforts. 

If you’ve already got goals in place, how are you tracking against them, and is there anything more you can do to keep pushing towards them, or do you need to reconsider things and adjust them to something more realistic?

You can set yourself smaller weekly goals too - in fact, if the goals have shorter time-frames, you’ll have more of a sense progress as you move through them, but don’t overload yourself! Make sure they’re achievable and have realistic deadlines. Have a listen to this episode of Squiggly Careers for some useful tips on goal setting that works.

Likewise, if you've already got a plan, perhaps you set one recently - don't throw that away! Just because its January 1st, doesn't mean all of the hard work which you put in last year needs to be reset. Look at the things you've already done, and identify ways to continue moving forward, either with consistency or focusing on the areas which really motivate you or that you want to grow within.

Whilst goal setting isn’t for everyone - having tangible markers to know whether you’re doing well is important. Without it, we don’t know if we’re doing okay or not, so even if you’re happy with rolling with what life throws at you, setting some understandable milestones and objectives just helps you feel like you’re making progress.

9/ Join an accountability group.

Don't try doing it all alone - join a group to share your goals and support your progress.

Don’t do it alone. Whilst you might work for yourself, that doesn’t mean you have to work by yourself, and joining a community is one of the many ways of sharing and setting intentions and helping to keep yourself on track.

Try joining an accountability group - a daily or weekly session with others where you set and share your intentions on what you want to get done, perhaps deliver a specific project or move forward to your next goal; and then with the group, check-in over a period of time with updates on how you’re getting on, roadblocks or hurdles you’re navigating, concerns and worries you might be having, and then reviewing and celebrating how you got on.

It can be a transformative approach if you’re struggling to focus, and many of our members use various forms of accountability groups. Perhaps you can set one up with your fellow freelancers within communities you are already a member in, or sign-up for Pods - Leapers own accountability groups, which bring together a small support group to help you focus on getting things done.

Even just writing down your intentions and reviewing them at the end of the week can help, research studies show that it’s an effective approach for goal setting and achieving those goals - but it’s even more effective if you’re sharing those goals with a group. Check out Pods for Leapers.

10/ Don't do too much at once.

Don't be too hard on yourself on day one - take time to ramp back up to full speed.

It's easy to set yourself a grand plan on day one, but be careful you're not setting yourself up to fail, by listing too many things, or out of your reach. Consider setting yourself a 'north star' of where you want to be, but then finding smaller steps towards that each month. 

If you're looking to introduce new habits and behaviours, don't introduce too many at once, just start with one thing, and stick with it for 30 days initially to see how you get on.  Having too many changes at once only makes it harder to maintain, and creates a sense of failure if you don't achieve it, making it harder to feel positive about your hard work and self-improvement.

And most of all, give yourself a break - remember that you're human, not a machine, and after a period of not working for a while, it is going to take you a few days at least to get back to your normal level of productivity. Be kind, and treat yourself as you go.

Remember, no-one is 100% productive all of the time, and your energy levels are continuum. You might feel super refreshed and ready to go on day one, but that doesn't mean your brain is ready to focus. Give yourself some time to get back up to speed, and remind yourself that self-employment is a marathon, not a sprint!