Protecting Your Time (when you’re self-employed)
As the killer combo of peak wedding season and summer holidays fast approaches and everyone’s energy levels take a gargantuan nosedive, I thought ‘Protecting Your Time’ would be a good chat topic for us photographers (and indeed any other self-employed folk!)
This post is particularly inspired by one absolute trojan of a woman in my Facebook group who ended up this month shooting 4 weddings and 5 full day commercial shoots in 10 days and somehow came out the other side albeit with a tooth abscess, a back injury and a chest infection the poor thing. It’s a dramatic example and she’s clearly some kind of all-powerful cyborg but us self-employed folk are all experts at over-stretching ourselves. So many of us, myself included, do it far more often than we should.
Almost everyone I know, whether self-employed or employed, struggles to achieve a healthy ‘work/life balance’ (personally I’m not actually sure that elusive concept even exists or is truly achievable in the first place – I write more about this here.) Of course our work’s important to us, but we also have other (often more) important things in our lives. Many of us are parents… all of us have family and friends… There are so many other things in life to enjoy – travel, our homes, hobbies, relaxation, time to switch off… We need to protect these joys fiercely, for our own happiness and sanity.
Being a photographer is undoubtedly one of the most fun, creative, exciting jobs and we’re lucky to do it, but the flip side is that it’s often one of the jobs with the most unsociable and irregular hours. Working weekends and late into the night is commonplace, and I know from my years as a wedding photographer that it can be soul-destroying working weekend after weekend while you miss out on your own family and friends’ time off. Everyone else’s leisure time becomes your work time, and your own ‘leisure time’ isn’t quite so exciting when it’s a Tuesday morning sat on your own in the kitchen.
When you run your own business, especially if you work from home, protecting your time is something that can be especially tricky as it’s so easy for the life/work lines to become blurred. Amongst my peer group of photographers, one of our most common chats is around carving out time for ourselves and our families, and preventing work time creeping into ‘life’ time. It’s so hard trying to ensure that in our necessary quest for more bookings, we don’t run ourselves into the ground at the same time.
For those of us who are the sole person in our business, it can be even harder to find time to switch off. When there’s no-one else there to take the reins for a bit, the feeling of personal responsibility can be overwhelming. When you know that you’re the only one keeping the boat afloat, it’s really hard to be able to stop your mind whirring in ‘business-mode’ and fully immerse yourself in other things. Your own leisure and sanity always gets put to the bottom of the pile.
So… I wanted to share some of my own experiences and advice in the hope that it helps any of you lovely photographers or self-employed folk to carve out a bit more time for yourselves. I’ve listed my own top 5 problems that I tend to struggle with, along with some solutions – some of which I manage, others that I’m yet to master! I hope they help!
PROBLEM #1: WORKING FROM HOME, YOU’RE CONSTANTLY ‘IN’ YOUR WORKPLACE
For those of us who work from home, it can feel like the computer never gets turned off (anyone else find themselves only pressing ‘restart’ after getting the whirring beachball of doom and realising it’s having a meltdown cos it’s not been shut down for about a fortnight?) The constant sound of emails pinging away in the background while you’re trying to make dinner or play with your kids… Walking past the computer to make a brew and ending up editing a few pictures instead… Thinking you’ll just ‘quickly check something’ and stepping away from your desk 3 hours later…
A) Try to have a separate room set aside for work if you can. I know this isn’t always possible – for many years I worked in an alcove in the corner of my dining room, and although I’ve had a home office for the last few years, when we move house in a couple of months’ time I’ll be back to working in the dining room again for a while. I know some people convert a shed or similar for a ‘garden office’ and others convert loft space. Clearly these aren’t cheap solutions but do consider the long-term sustainability of your workspace and its impact on your life and sanity as a whole – if ever an investment is worth it, it’s this. I’ll be doing this again in the new house as soon as I have the funds.
B) Try to replicate an office routine wherever possible and decide what hours you’ll work each day at the start of each week. Write them down and share them with your family or partner so they can help hold you accountable to sticking to them.
C) When you finish work for the day (as per your agreed ‘office hours’) TURN THE COMPUTER OFF. Making it go to ‘sleep’ DOES NOT COUNT. As you know, it’s very easily woken. Turn that bastard off and go and relax. You’re also protecting your investment – computers are expensive and need their beauty sleep too – turning it off properly and giving it a rest each day will make it last longer and perform quicker.
PROBLEM #2: HOLIDAYS ARE LIMITED, AT INCONVENIENT TIMES OR SCRAMBLED TOGETHER LAST MINUTE
When you’re trying to build your business, you’re keen to take on as much work as possible and terrified to say no to potential bookings. For years, I’d not book any holidays until I’d booked in my full quota of work for that year, fitting the bookings into any spaces whatsoever in my diary. I’d only then realise that I’d have 2-3 month stints without a weekend off, or that I’d left myself with only 5 consecutive days for a break during the school holidays. These gluts of work would loom in the diary, filling me with dread. Any ‘holidays’ were snatched little snippets here and there, shoehorned in between weddings, meaning I didn’t really feel relaxed while I was on them anyway. Work felt endless and relentless, and my time with my family suffered for it.
A) Protect your holidays. Try to replicate the employed process of booking annual leave, taking time at the end of each year to look at the coming year, plan ahead when you’re going to want to take time off and get those dates reserved and in the diary. Consider school holidays, any existing bookings or commitments, figure out when you’re going to want/need a break, and block out the time you want to protect. Remember most employed people have 5-6 weeks annual leave (plus weekends) so don’t short-change yourself – you’ll need it too. Try to have one longer holiday booked in, plus a couple of shorter breaks, at least. Don’t leave it to chance – you might end up with them, but you might not.
B) Protect your weekends. Make it a monthly habit to look at your diary in the coming weeks/months and identify any ‘gluts’ of weekend work forming. Cap these by blocking out at least the weekend before and the weekend after. Making sure you have enough ‘normal’ weekends off is just as important as taking longer holidays away. It’s actually the little things like barbecues, roast dinners and lazy Saturdays that can be especially galling to miss and especially good for the soul. They’re also the time when most of your other family and friends are off. Make sure you don’t miss out on them.
C) Learn to get better at saying no. It can be really hard to say no to enquiries for dates you’ve set aside for holidays/breaks, but remember you’re doing it for your own health and happiness. I’ve literally never regretted saying no to work, but have often regretted booking it. Try saying no, see how it feels – chances are you’ll actually feel pretty excited and liberated, and once you’ve done it a couple of times it become so much easier. If after saying no you’re genuinely filled with terror you can always reply a second time saying you’ve become available again after all. But once you’ve done the hard bit of saying no you probably won’t want to.
PROBLEM #3: CONSTANTLY RESPONDING TO EMAILS
This is a biggie for me, and still is. It encroaches on both my working and leisure time. Some days I seem to spend most of the day being derailed from other tasks reading and replying to emails. During evenings and weekends I’m similarly often distracted by work emails popping in thanks to my mate the iPhone whose job it is to make sure I’m ALWAYS connected. It’s not unheard of for me to reply to an email at midnight either when I’m in bed or out with friends, and unless it’s an emergency (which it almost never is) it really shouldn’t be happening.
A) Have one or two set periods each day during which you’ll check and respond to emails. Close your email client in between so you don’t get distracted from other tasks by new messages pinging away.
B) Turn off push notifications for email on your phone so you only know emails have arrived when you consciously choose to check.
C) Create an out of office and email signature with your office hours clearly stated. Manage expectations that you won’t reply during evenings or weekends. You can even set your ‘out of office’ on permanently if that helps – so that clients always receive an immediate response letting them know how long they’re likely to have to wait for a response and what your working hours are. You can always reply sooner but you won’t be tied to it and if you do it’s more likely to be appreciated as ‘over-delivering’.
PROBLEM #4: NO TIME TO RELAX OR RECHARGE
Looking after your own wellbeing is often low on the list for self-employed folk – there are always a million more urgent things we feel we should be doing. Often we don’t take lunch breaks, or scoff something crap (full disclosure – I’ve been known to gnaw direct from a block of cheese in front of my screen – it’s not a pretty sight.) Similarly it’s easy to push exercise to the bottom of the list, especially when you’ve got kids – by the time you’ve got them shipped off to nursery or school you’ve got so little time before you’ve got to collect them that you feel you can’t justify doing anything but working. When we often work in the evenings too, it leaves little time to look after ourselves and actually breathe.
A) Make sure you schedule in a lunch break with some healthy, nourishing food when you’re doing your daily planning – you’ll work far more efficiently in the afternoon if you’re fed properly and take a break from the screen. If making decent food on the fly seems too much hassle, try to plan your lunches in advance each week, and/or batch cook meals for the week on a Sunday.
B) Plan physical exercise for the week – it will clear your head, give you more energy and lift your mood. Even if it’s just walking the dog or a few sit ups in your bedroom, try to fit something in. Exercise isn’t something you need to feel selfish or guilty about doing – it’s good for you in every way and the best investment for your business is for you to be healthy in body and mind.
C) Schedule in wind-down time each day – try not to jump straight from computer to sleep. Allocate time for reading a book, meditation or whatever relaxes you the most and helps you switch off. Even if it’s just 15 minutes it’ll make a huge difference to how refreshed you feel between working days. If you struggle to fit it in at night then see if you can do it first thing in the morning or in the middle of the day alongside your lunch break.
PROBLEM #5 – WORKING ALONE MEANS YOU CAN NEVER BE ‘OFF’ SHIFT
When you’re the only person in a business it can feel overwhelming – there’s no one else to take over from you so you end up doing everything, all the time, and feel like you can’t take a break or the business will suffer. It’s so easy to end up at the beck and call of clients, responding to emails and working during evenings, weekends and holidays.
A) Provide clear information to clients from the outset about how you work, what the process is and what to expect from you and when. Don’t just create brochures for people who haven’t booked yet. Create welcome info and questionnaires for those who’ve become clients too, anticipating frequently asked questions by providing them with the answers before they’ve thought to ask them. Create an Out of Office and email signatures with your office hours as mentioned above. When YOU lead THEM, you manage their expectations. Liaising clearly and proactively with clients and taking the initiative with information reassures them that they’re in safe hands and they’re less likely to feel the need to ask as many questions.
B) Outsource whatever you can – anything you don’t like, aren’t very good at or that someone else can easily do for you. Editing / admin / brochure design / finance etc are all popular things to outsource for good reason.
C) Remember – you’re human. Just like everyone else, you’re allowed time off. As long as you’ve looked after your existing clients and managed expectations, it’s ok to have an out of office saying you’re away for 2 weeks and won’t reply during that time. If it makes you feel more relaxed to check your inbox every day or two to make sure no emergencies are unfolding, then so be it. But you don’t have to reply if there aren’t. The world will keep turning, your clients will still be there and you’ll be all the more refreshed and ready to look after yourself and your business when you get back.
Hope these help!
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