The most unexpected thing about becoming self-employed was how much trouble I had focusing once I was working alone. I wasn’t great at focus before, I admit, but it became a huge challenge without the structure and community of a workplace to go to.
I started thinking I was going crazy or that I’d suddenly gotten “self-employment induced ADD.” I would do housework when I needed to be working, to avoid facing that scattered mind, only to find that the head-spin would get worse and worse. Sound familiar? (C’mon, raise your hand. It’s so common.)
In our push-push culture, we think the cure for focus problems is to push ourselves harder, get more disciplined, learn better time management, etc. Right? But I believe a more effective cure is to get some co-workers… in a way that works for us. We need camaraderie to keep our minds sharp.
I know, introverts like me who love the peace and quiet of working alone will resist this idea, at first. Hear me out.It’s a big shift to go from working in a company with co-workers all around you, to working on your own. Even when you’re thrilled by the freedom, the shift away from the workplace community is stressful for anyone. I see it all the time with my clients after leaving a job, and I can honestly tell them and you: You are not alone in that stress.
I’ll explain how I have found my balance between people time and alone time, which has mostly cured my self-employment induced ADD. (I mean, I still need some other focusing tricks but the people connection has been the core solution for me.)
From Craving Quiet to Craving Company
I used to enjoy the quiet concentration time after everyone else had gone home, so I assumed working alone would be easy. But it turns out I really did need co-workers to stay sane and productive! Their presence, when they too were in quiet work mode, helped my brain to focus. The buzz of productivity is contagious.
I can see now that my natural “pack animal” instinct was satisfied when working with others, even while I wasn’t conscious of it.
The most important thing I did to get through the stress of taking the self-employment leap was to create my new kind of “co-workers.” Even though I was thrilled to have the space to myself, I couldn’t stand the isolation for too long.
Back at the old job, I craved more alone time, and then while working at home, I craved more people time. I need a middle ground. We all do.
In my early self-employment days, I remember calling a friend in tears with how much I couldn’t focus, and then I ended up working at her dining room table while she was in her home office, and wow, I could magically get things done. What a relief! This same cure worked nearly every time!
Old School Co-workers vs Your New Co-Workers
I know, you might be cringing at the thought of those previous co-workers who made you insane sometimes. (The gossip, the chatty officemate, the resistance to your great ideas, the mess in the break room, and I’m sure you could list some more.)
But this time, you get to choose who they are and how much contact you have with your new co-workers. And you can change it up whenever you want. We can keep the freedom and keep the support. Cool, huh?
Give Up on the Lone Wolf Myth.
You don’t have to be a “lone wolf” to have the authenticity and autonomy you’re craving. In fact, the lone wolf approach will not work. Success as a lone wolf is pure myth.
We are pack animals (just like wolves!). Our brains function better with a sense of community. It’s not a weakness, it’s a basic human need.
Needing Company Doesn’t Mean You’ve Become an Extrovert.
As an introvert, I do enjoy quiet for concentration. But the lack of enough people contact was deafening once I was working alone, before I had enough client contact.
Too often I was desperately struggling to focus. I thought I must have turned into an extrovert over night when I had such cravings for people time.
It’s not that my introverted personality changed. It’s that we all need some alone time and some people time.
Here’s the trick for finding your balance. We all have different set-points for what feels like balance (which is where the introvert-extrovert spectrum comes in), and so there’s no universal prescription for how much of each. Your body will tell you when you’re off balance, just like when you’re standing on a seesaw, you just know when you need to shift weight.
Now that I have regular interactions with clients, it meets a lot of my people energy needs. But I still need to connect with my self-employed peers regularly. (I sometimes try to get that quick community fix on Facebook instead of picking up the phone for a deeper connection which would serve me much better. Sound familiar?)
How Solopreneurs Can Find Co-Workers
When you accept that community is a real need, you won’t be as stuck in the unconscious habit of trying to meet the need with Facebook.
Your co-workers are out there. You don’t need a business partner to have it. (In fact, don’t jump into business partnership lightly.)
Here are some effective ways that we “solopreneurs” get our co-worker fix so we can get back to more focus:
- Have lunch with self-employed friends and talk through those stuck places in your head.
- Set up Monday check-in calls with a self-employed friend to report on your plans for the week.
- Join a “mastermind” group where you can get community support and professional guidance. (I lead a mastermind group for introverted SOULpreneurs.)
- Join a co-working space. (Search the web for co-working to find one near you.)
- Work at a café. (This is why cafés are full of people on laptops.)
- Hire help — even if just for a few hours to help you with a technical challenge.
- Meet with a business coach or consultant on a regular basis. (You get the benefits of a savvy business partner without the partnership challenges.)
It’s all available. You have to find what works for you. I’ve done all these things. I like to mix and match as needed, interspersed with a big dose of alone time at home. I follow my body’s balance signals.
I’m writing this piece in a writer’s co-working space and my brain is much more focused than if I were at home.
You won’t want to go back to having a boss once you get a taste of the self-employment freedom, but you will want and need to keep having co-workers. (It’s interesting how it’s easier to do fine without the boss than without the co-workers.)
Have you found your co-workers who keep you sane? Think about it.
P.S., Even though it’s common, I don’t think “self-employment induced ADD” will end up in the medical books because the treatment isn’t medical, it’s co-workers!