As a self-employed business consultant and software instructor for the past ten years, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked “What do you do on the days that you aren’t teaching a class?” For some reason, people have the perception that when I am not teaching, I sit by the pool and drank margaritas all day. Believe me, as nice as that sounds, I could not have built up my business to the steady client base that I have today if I had done that!
Self-discipline is a key trait that self-employed business people share. People who are self-employed business are not “on-the-clock” in the sense that they are punching a time clock as they go to work each day. However, you must maintain regular office hours if you want to be taken seriously. Once you begin working for different clients, getting their work done on time should be your highest priority. Another part of being self-disciplined is being aware of how and where you spend your own time and realizing that nobody is paying you for certain activities.
Two years ago I sold a car. The young woman who bought it was just starting college, and her mom accompanied her to look at the car and help her with the buying process (I would want to do the same for my own daughter). The mother asked me if I would mind submitting the car for a “used car inspection;” meaning would I take it down to the local shop to have it inspected by a mechanic?
I did indeed take the car to a shop to have it inspected. As I expected, there was nothing wrong with my car, and I ended up selling it to the young woman. However, looking back on the situation, I might’ve handled it differently.
How so? Well, first off, nobody paid me for the time it took to take my car and have it inspected. The mother paid for the inspection, but I am talking about my own time. As a self-employed business person, I did not have an hour or two of vacation time that I could mark down on my time sheet so that I could go and take care of that little chore. Although it was an inconvenience for me, ultimately I did it because as a mother, I would want my daughter to have the same reassurance when the day comes that she buys her first used car.
My father has had his own engineering firm since 1973. Growing up, we belonged to a church, and all of the other kid’s fathers would get up early on Saturday morning and mow the church’s yard, and trim the bushes, etc., among other chores. I always wondered why my Dad was not interested in helping out, so one day I asked him. He explained to me that he worked on Saturday mornings, and that he made more money by working in his business, and that he would rather hire an able-bodied teenaged kid to mow the yard in his place.
My Dad’s answer was my first understanding that there is a “highest and best use” of a person’s time, depending on their skill level. In other words, my Dad had a choice between earning a high wage doing engineering work (which not many people can perform) for one of his clients, or working for free mowing the church’s yard.
As another example, let’s look at the same thing when you are cleaning your house. What is the highest and best use of your time? Cleaning the house, or writing an article that nobody else can write (or working on a client project, or doing some marketing work for your business, etc.)? You may want to consider hiring someone to do your house cleaning for you.
When you are self-employed, you need to consider carefully any request that takes time away from your business – whether it be volunteer work for a charity or a non-profit organization, sitting on a church committee or city board, or organizing a community event or fundraiser, babysitting for a fellow mom, whatever!
Cynthia Long, one of the case study chapters in my book – Full-Time Woman, Part-Time Career – says that, for her, “One of the hardest things to learn was to limit my outside commitments. When I first started out, I was on City Council. I lost a lot of income by giving up what could’ve been billable hours to the City Council. In hindsight, I don’t think doing civic work and starting a new business are a good mix. You have to choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, you have to spend more time on your business.”
When you are a self-employed business, you must learn to guard your time carefully. Think about what you are trading – your time and income – for whatever it is you are being asked to do. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Your time is valuable. Learn to use it wisely.