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how do you deal with freelancer terror?

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I meant to make this an “ask the readers” question as per my new Thursday tradition, but I started writing just a short response to it and then it got longer and longer. So it’s not quite that anymore, but hopefully readers will weigh in as well.

I’m an avid reader of your blog, even though I haven’t had a standard office job in about a decade. I’ve been a freelancer/independent contractor all that time, in a competitive, creative industry. My work is fascinating and fulfilling; working at home on my own time maximizes my strengths while minimizing my professional weaknesses; and I’m happier doing this than any other kind of work I’ve ever tried. I’m nearly 50 and have worked in four different professions, so I’m glad to have found the right track for me.

But the one big downside is the uncertainty. I hate not knowing when work will come, or precisely what money will be coming in at any given time. (My quarterly taxes are an exercise in amateur soothsaying.) This means that when I have multiple offers, I take them all and work myself ragged. Then I tell myself I won’t do that again—and I hit a brief dry spell, which fills me with financial terror. Sometimes it feels easier to be a workaholic than to deal with the anxiety. Budgeting only gets me so far, as my income varies widely, and quarterly taxes therefore become a huge variable. (In my best year I made mid-six-figures; in my lowest year, mid-five-figures. At the start of each year, I have only a rough idea where I’ll be on that continuum.) I bought a house I can make payments on even at the lower end of my range—but it’s the not knowing that drives me batty. I can’t stop thinking that this is the year it all falls apart. Sometimes I think of getting a day job again, but I never did any better at that than my lowest earning freelance year, and I genuinely love the work I do.

I would love to hear your advice (of the other readers’) for dealing with freelancer job anxiety, particularly in creative fields. Unless it’s just “Xanax.”

Yes to Xanax.

For years, I dealt with this by taking on as much work as I could humanly do, which meant that I was often working nearly all of my waking hours and rarely seeing friends and family — and was still living in fear that it could all change in an instant and I could be penniless and homeless. It sucks to live that way! (Your line “Sometimes it feels easier to be a workaholic than to deal with the anxiety” captures exactly how I felt.)

I eventually decided that there’s a certain point where one has been successful enough at one’s chosen work that it’s reasonable to trust that you’ll continue getting work and it’s okay to turn things down and make room in your life for non-work things, and it’s so much better … but I still always have that fear in the back of my head, and maybe all freelancers always do.

The best thing to soothe that fear that I’ve found: savings. In your good years, pile all that extra money into savings. Then you can look at your finances and tell yourself things like, “If I stopped getting any work tomorrow, I could still live just fine for X years/months, and that would be plenty of time to find a regular job if I needed to.”

That doesn’t mean that you have to live at the income level of your worst year, but I’d look at what you make most years, and then live around that level (while keeping things like your mortgage payment affordable for your worst years too, as you’ve done).

Also: Have a plan! You keep thinking that maybe this will be the year it will all fall apart. It probably won’t, but who knows, maybe it will be. What would you do if that happened? Gaming that out and knowing that you have a plan in case that happens will probably help you feel more comfortable.

I also think one of the hardest things about working for yourself is that there’s no ceiling on what you can make. You could potentially earn way more than you ever could at a normal job. So even if you’re making enough, you have to wonder if you should spending more time working so that you earn even more (to safeguard yourself against future leaner times, or just because you love money, or whatever). But that’s how people end up working around the clock — so at some point you have to decide what else you want from your life, and how you want to balance that against the money piece.

Readers who work for yourselves (or have in the past), what’s your advice?

how do you deal with freelancer terror? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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pfctdayelise
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Melbourne, Australia
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Avoiding hour creep: get your work done and still go home at 5PM

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You want to work 40 hours a week, you want to head home at 5PM, but—there’s this bug. And you’re stuck, and you really need to fix it, and you’re in the middle so you work just a little longer. Next thing you know you’re leaving work at 6PM.

And before long you’re working 50 hours a week, and then 60 hours a week, and if you stop working overtime it’ll hit your output, and then your manager will have a talk with you but how you really need to put in more effort. So now you’re burning out, and you’re not sure what you can do about it.

But what if you were more productive?

What if you knew how to get your work done on company time, and could spent your own time on whatever you wanted?

You can—with a little time management.

Some caveats

Before we get to the actual techniques you’ll be using, some preliminaries.

First, these techniques will only work if you have a manager who judges you based on results, not hours in the office. Keep in mind that there are many managers who claim they want a 50-hour workweek, but in practice will be happy if you do a good job in just 40. I’m also assuming your company is not in constant crisis mode. If these assumptions are wrong, better time management won’t help: it’s time to find another job.

Second, these techniques are here to help you in day-to-day time management. If production is down, you may need to work longer hours. (And again, if production is down every week, it’s time to find another job.)

Finally, for simplicity’s sake I’m assuming you get in at 9:00AM and want to leave at 5:PM. Adjust the times below accordingly if you start later in the day.

Taking control over your time

Since your problem is time creep, the solution is hard limits on when you can start new work—together with time allocated to planning so future work is more productive.

Here’s the short version of a schedule that will help you do more in less time:

  1. When you get in to work you read your checkpoint from the previous workday (I’ll explain this in a bit).
  2. Until 3:30PM you work as you normally would.
  3. After 3:30PM you continue on any existing task you’re already working on. If you finish that task you can start new tasks only if you know they will take 15 minutes or less. If you don’t have any suitable tasks you should spend this time planning future work.
  4. At 4:45PM you stop what you’re doing and checkpoint your work.
  5. At 5:00PM you go home.

Let’s delve deeper so you can understand what to do, and why this will help you.

End of day → start of next day: checkpointing

In the last 15 minutes of your day you stop working and checkpoint your work. That is, you write down everything you need to know to get started quickly the next morning when you come to work.

If you’re in the middle of a task, for example, you can check in “XXX” comments into your code with notes on the next changes you were planning to make. If you’re doing planning, you can assign yourself a task and write down as much as possible about how you should implement it.

This has two benefits:

  1. Next morning when you get to work, and even more so after a weekend or vacation, you’ll spend much less time context swapping and trying to remember where you were. Instead, you’ll have clear notes about what to do next.
  2. By planning your work for the next day, you’re setting up your brain to work out the problem in the background, while you’re enjoying your free time. You’re more likely to wake up in the morning with a solution to a hard problem, or have an insight in the shower. For more about this see Rich Hickey’s talk on Hammock Driven-Development.

No new large tasks after 3:30PM

By the time the afternoon rolls by you’ve been working for quite a few hours, and your brain isn’t going to work as well. If you’re in the middle of a task you can keep working on it, but if you finish a task you should stop taking on large new tasks near the end of the day. You’ll do much better starting them the next day, when you’re less tired and have a longer stretch of time to work on them.

How should you spend your time? You can focus on small tasks, like code reviews.

Even more importantly, you can spend your afternoon doing planning:

  • Take vague tasks and write down the details and sub-tasks.
  • Investigate potential solutions.
  • Research new technologies.
  • Try to understand the underlying causes of problems you’re seeing come up again and again.
  • Think about the big picture of what you’re working on.

In the long run planning will make your implementation work faster. And by limiting planning to only part of your day you’re making sure you don’t spend all of your time planning.

Going home at 5:00PM exactly

There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending a few more minutes finishing something past 5:00PM. The problem is that you’re experiencing hour creep—it’s a problem for you specifically. Having a hard and fast rule about when you leave will force you not to stay until 6:00 or 7:00PM.

Plus, sometimes it’s not just a few minutes, sometimes you’ll need more than that to solve the problem. And a task that will take two hours in the evening might take you only 10 minutes in the morning, when you’re well-rested.

In the long run you’ll be more productive by not working long hours.

A recap

Here’s a recap of how you should be spending your day at work:

  • 9:00AM-3:30PM: Start by reading your checkpoint notes from the day before so you can get started immediately, then work normally.
  • 3:30PM-4:45PM: Continue on existing task, if you’re finished then transition to small tasks and planning.
  • 4:45PM-5:00PM: Checkpoint your work, then leave your office.
  • 5:00PM-…: Whatever you want to do.

There’s nothing magic about this particular set of rules, of course. You will likely want change or customize this plan to your own needs and situation.

Nonetheless, since you are suffering from hour creep I suggest following this particular plan for a couple of weeks just so you start getting a sense of the benefits. Once you’ve taken control over your time you can start modifying the rules to suit your needs better.



Is your job taking way all your personal time and freedom? You can succeed as a software engineer without working crazy hours.


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pfctdayelise
8 days ago
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Melbourne, Australia
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Cameron Esposito’s “Rape Jokes”

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her brilliant one-hour standup special about sexual assault, stream free or purchase to support RAINN

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pfctdayelise
11 days ago
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sirshannon
12 days ago
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I love Cameron Esposito (and Rhea Butcher).
DMack
11 days ago
Young Caramel has outdone herself, this is so good

my coworker has started faking a British accent

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A reader writes:

So this question is … more just truly bizarre than anything. But recently, a coworker of mine has decided she is now British and has been regularly slipping into a thick British accent — very Madonna-esque.

On one hand, I guess live your life. On the other hand, OH MY GOD, WHAT? It’s truly impossible not to notice and has been gradually noticed by hordes of people within the office at this point, yet nobody really knows how to even begin processing this new information. Do we just carry on as normal? Is this what life is now? I suppose it really isn’t harming anyone — but wow is it something.

To expand on this, though we can’t fully unpack what the reasoning behind all of this is — it feels a bit like a personal branding play. Thanks for indulging!

Sit back and enjoy, because this kind of thing is what life is all about. Humans are weird! So weird, in so many different ways. Often that weirdness is hidden and comes out in ways that shock and disappoint you, after the person lulled you into thinking you knew what to expect from them. So it’s lovely when someone wears their weirdness like a peacock’s plumes, right there for all to see from the get-go.

And this is the sort of amazing and wonderful thing that makes work more interesting. You don’t need to worry about determining exactly where it’s coming from or why, although you should also feel free to indulge yourself in private speculation (emphasis on private; do not mock her with others). Does she believe she now sounds more sophisticated? (That was the Madonna theory, right?) Has she been binge watching British TV and picked it up without realizing it? Is she in disguise or possibly on the lam? Was she actually British this whole time and it was the American accent that was the fake? There are so many possibilities, and each one is fascinating.

So my advice to you: ENJOY THIS SPECTACLE. Another one so intriguing may not pass your way again for a while.

my coworker has started faking a British accent was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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pfctdayelise
23 days ago
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my boss wants to give me his kidney — but I don’t want it

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A reader writes:

I have a question that is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the boss who (shudder) tried to force his employees to donate an organ to his brother.

I have a serious chronic kidney disease. I was diagnosed almost a decade ago and have been able to control many of the most serious complications with diet and medication. Recently however, my kidney function has diminished. I am now on regular dialysis and will soon need a transplant.

Because of the sudden change in my health, I had to let my boss, who I have only worked for for six months, know that I would be out several times a week for the treatments. He has been incredibly supportive and I am grateful. However, his support is almost TOO much. He regularly visits me while I’m getting treatments (not to assign work, like another boss someone wrote in about), but just to offer support and “keep me company.” I appreciate that he wants to be there for me, which I think comes from his knowing I don’t have any family locally, but this is unnecessary. My treatments make me very, very tired and I often get sick during and after them. I delicately let him know that I prefer to have my treatments alone, and to his credit, he has cut back on his pop-ins significantly, but now I have another hurdle … he wants to give me his kidney.

Organ donation is very invasive and recovery can take months. There are so many issues with that organ coming from my boss that I don’t even know where to begin, but here’s the main two:

1. Would my boss then feel as if I was obligated to stay in my position? I love my job and have no plans to leave anytime soon, but I don’t want to feel guilty about doing what’s best for me career wise because my supervisor literally saved my life.

2. Things can go wrong with organ donation. There are so many risks that I don’t feel comfortable having my boss undertake on my behalf.

I don’t currently have another donor lined up, but I know I am not comfortable accepting my boss’s offer. How do I tell my incredibly generous boss that I don’t want his kidney, when he knows that if I don’t find an alternative, I could possibly die? He is such a kind man, and I would like a way to firmly, but kindly let him know that isn’t something I can allow him to do, while also expressing my gratitude at the offer.

How about this: “This is an incredibly kind and generous offer and I’m so grateful that you’d consider it. There are enough risks with organ donation and potential complications to our employment relationship that I wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting that from my boss — I hope you understand. Honestly, the best thing you can do for me is what you’ve been doing — giving me the flexibility that I need for medical treatments. You’re the only person in my life who’s in a position to do that, and that on its own has made this time so much easier for me.”

If he continues to push his kidney (a surprising phrase to write), say this: “It actually makes my life easier and less stressful if we keep our relationship to boss/employee rather than donor/organ recipient. I love my job and I don’t want to introduce any potential complications to that. I’m really grateful for the offer, and I hope you understand.”

If he continues to push after that, personally I would yell “I will not take your kidney!” but adapt to whatever you’re comfortable with.

By the way … there is such a thing as too much support, if it ignores the stated wishes of the person being supported. I don’t know how delicate you were when you told him you prefer to have your treatments alone, but “cutting back” on his visits is not the same as respecting your request that he stop. That said, if “delicate” means that you hinted to the point that the message wasn’t quite clear, you may need to be more direct. It’s okay to say, “It’s so kind of you to come check on me, but the treatments take so much out of me, and sometimes make me sick, that I find I prefer to do them alone.” You could also enlist the staff at the clinic and have them tell him you’re resting and not accepting visitors the next time he shows up.

Your boss is clearly trying to help. If he’s as supportive as he seems to be trying to be, you’ll be doing both of you a favor if you let him know (kindly and with enthusiasm) the ways in which you welcome his help — and the ways in which you don’t.

my boss wants to give me his kidney — but I don’t want it was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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pfctdayelise
33 days ago
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what to do if you hate your job

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I wrote this for LinkedIn’s Weekend Essay this weekend.

If you’re miserable at work, you’re not alone. Having written Ask a Manager for more than a decade now, I’ve answered questions from literally thousands of people who hate their jobs. Whether it’s due to a difficult boss, unpleasant colleagues, mind-numbing work, or a toxic culture, there are a lot of people toiling away at jobs they’d rather not be in.

The unsettling reality is that even if you do everything right in screening your jobs, you can still end up in a work situation that makes you unhappy. The great boss who you were so excited to work with could move on a few months after you start, and her replacement could end up being a disaster. Your office could have budget cuts that leave you with an unmanageable workload. You could be assigned a new client who turns your dream job into a nightmare. Or, if you’re like a lot of people, you might just end up in a job that sounded amazing in the interview but fell drastically short of your expectations once you started.

If you find yourself in this situation, step one is to get really clear about exactly what the problem is. Is your boss a hovering micromanager who doesn’t give you any autonomy, despite your years of experience? Or maybe the problem is your coworkers – is your work life lonely because you haven’t been able to form any rapport with your colleagues? Maybe it’s the work itself; you might have signed up expecting to do X but ended up doing Y, or the workload might be way too high or so low that you’re bored for hours every week. Or maybe it’s your company culture since not every culture will be a fit for every person. Maybe your office is slow-moving and resistant to change, while you’re more entrepreneurial and need a culture that values that, or maybe it rewards people who spend their off-hours golfing with the company bigwigs and you’re not up for that. Or maybe upon reflection you’ll realize that the problem isn’t this particular job, but rather the idea of having to work in general that’s making you miserable.

Once you’ve zeroed in on what the problem is, the next step is to figure out if it’s worth trying to fix it. If you have fundamental issues with your company’s culture, that’s not likely something you’ll be able to change. But if the issue is, say, that your workload is too high and you’re in danger of burning out, you might actually be able to get relief by talking with your boss. Not always – but if your boss is reasonable and has a track record of taking people’s concerns seriously, it’s worth raising the issue and seeing if anything changes. And if nothing does, at least then you’ll know for sure; you’ll have raised the issue, learned the problem isn’t going to go away, and then can make decisions for yourself from a place of greater information.

Of course, sometimes it can be hard to know if something is fixable. In the past, I’ve pulled complaints out of people who weren’t speaking up on their own because they were certain that the thing they disliked couldn’t be fixed, and yet once I knew about it, I was able to resolve the problem relatively quickly. So even an issue seems insurmountable to you, it might still be worth raising – because your manager has a different vantage point and might be more able to address the problem than you realized. Not always, of course, but if you’re unhappy enough that you’re likely to leave over whatever’s bothering you, it might be worth a conversation.

That said, if your manager isn’t open to feedback, tends to punish people for rocking the boat, or just isn’t particularly reasonable, you might rightly conclude that there’s not much to be gained by going that route. And other times, even if your manager would be receptive, you might realize that there are so many problems contributing to your unhappiness that fixing a few of them won’t be enough.

Once you have a more solid idea of whether your problems with your job can be resolved or not, you can move on to figuring out what to do next. Even if the problems can’t or won’t be fixed, that doesn’t automatically mean that you should leave. At this stage in your thinking, you should step back and take stock of your situation, being as brutally honest with yourself as you can. Things to think about: What are you getting out of the situation if you stay (for example, pay, benefits, a flexible schedule, a great commute, interesting work, professional opportunities, and so forth)? How likely are you to find those things somewhere else? Do the advantages of staying outweigh the negatives? What are the negatives of leaving (such as missed opportunities or having multiple short-term stays on your resume), and how do you weigh those in this calculation?

In other words, this decision should rarely be as simple as “I hate my job so I should leave.” Sure, sometimes that might be the answer. But other times you might realize that if you can get through two years of this job, you can parlay it into something much better … or sometimes it might be as simple as deciding that while yes, you don’t like the work, you love your salary and your 10-minute commute and you can reframe your thinking so that you’re less unhappy day-to-day. Getting really clear in your head that you’re choosing to stay because you’ve calculated that the trade-offs are worth it to you can sometimes make the situation much more bearable – probably because it reinforces that you do have choices and some control. Yes, my boss is a jerk, you can think, but I’m choosing to stick it out for now because I’m paid well and I love my commute. I can always change my mind later, but for now this makes sense for me.

Or, you might come out of this calculation with a really clear sense that you do indeed need to move on. You might decide that the things that bother you are serious problems, aren’t going to change, and aren’t worth the pay and other benefits you’re getting by staying. That’s a good outcome too. The idea is just to be really clear-eyed about what you are and aren’t willing to accept, how you weigh all the different factors in the situation, and which matter most to you.

If you go through this mental exercise and still aren’t sure if you should stay or go, one middle-ground option is to try launching a casual job search. Look around at what job postings are out there, put out some feelers to people in your network, talk to some recruiters. You’ll probably start getting some useful data about the market that will push you in one direction or the other. You might find, for example, that the market is booming for people with your skills and that it’ll be relatively easy to find a new position without the problems at your current job. Or who knows, after seeing what else is out there, you might see your current job in a new, more positive light. But either way, you’ll get more data, which will help you make better decisions.

And of course, if you do decide to leave, it’s crucial not to be in such a rush to get out of your current job that you skimp on doing your due diligence about the new one. When you’re miserable at work, it’s very easy to grasp at the first life raft that comes along – but leaping too hastily can mean you end up somewhere else where you’re unhappy too. Taking time to be really thoughtful and deliberative about where you end up next, even if it slows down your departure a bit, will pay off in your next position.

what to do if you hate your job was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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pfctdayelise
33 days ago
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