It’s been 6 and a half years since I took the decision to step out from my relatively secure and well-paid job to start my own consultancy. There have been ups and downs, moments of self doubt (and, if I’m being really honest, time spent scouring the job pages looking for a ‘safe’ job) – but on the whole, it has been the best decision that I’ve made.
More importantly, it’s given me the chance to be there for my kids, which was the primary driver behind the decision, but I’d be lying – and it would be a whopper – if I said it was easy. In fact, there are times when I know it would be easier having a full time job again and putting the kids into after school club, but the reality is that would mean I’d rarely see them, and that wasn’t what I signed up for when I had them.
Organising clients, marketing to get new clients, dealing with business admin & finance alongside the increasingly busy diaries of my two kids is hard work. Really hard work. There are times when I wish I wasn’t writing emails at midnight and that I wasn’t running from meetings, to hockey, to swimming, to athletics and back again. Let’s face it, there are times when I wish I was having a facial, a manicure, a glass of fizz and some ‘me time’, but sadly, that just doesn’t pay the bills.
That said, since going it alone, I’ve managed to successfully grow my business from nothing but a laptop and an idea, and client list with no-one on it, to earnings back at the level I had when I worked full time (but now on part-time hours) and a full client list. I’ve set up two blogs, created a fortnightly e-newsletter that goes out to my list (only 500+ but steadily rising), and written, marketed and sold an e-book from my website and on Kindle, with another in the pipeline – so I must be doing something right.
I have tried (and failed) to fly by the seat of my pants, but the reality is that the more organised that my schedule is, the more flexible I can be, which is counter-intuitive but seems to work.
It wasn’t always like this though, and I did spend much of the early days spending far too much time focusing on the wrong things – or not focusing at all – and so my top tips for running a business and a house without going completely gaga are:
1. Make your ‘to do’ list manageable
If your list has 15+ things on it that you have to do the following day – unless they are all small things – you’re unlikely to get them done. So, once it’s written out, go through your list again and try to be objective. I try to get mine down to 4 main items plus an additional 3 ‘quick fix’ items, if really needed.
Ask yourself two questions about each item on your list:
- Does that have to happen tomorrow?
- What will happen if I move it a day (or more)?
If it won’t adversely affect either your client work or your home life, move it. Once you assign times to each item (see below) you’ll get an even clearer idea of what might be possible making it even easier to determine what can move and what needs to stay in. Try to be as ruthless as possible – otherwise, you’ll just end up stressed out and will achieve less.
2. Timetable Your Day
Before I sound too smug, I used to be guilty of writing out huge ‘to do’ lists before logging off at the end of each working day. Then of course, I’d discover that I could only get about a third of the way through the list before having to down tools to pick the kids up from school. These days I write and prioritise my list then chunk each priority down into actions for the next day, assigning an appropriate amount of time for each. That way I can make sure that I achieve my priorities, and I can also see if I won’t have enough time for everything that needs done. I also try to buffer bigger items – or things I really don’t want to do – with a couple of small, fast quick wins. It’s amazing how ticking something off the list can motivate you.
I know it sounds rigid and inflexible, but quite often I’ll find some tasks take less time that I’d thought, which either gives me more time for larger tasks OR (my favourite) more time for lunch!
3. Get organised the night before
As I said above, I write out my to do list at the end of the working day (or before bed) prioritising key actions for the following day and scheduling them in. However, I also make sure that packed lunches are good to go (or dinner money has been counted out), school uniform is laid out and homework is done and in the school bags. It makes for a less stress free morning and means that, once the little darlings are off to school, I can hit the day running.
4. Using Planning Apps to Make Life Easier
I knew I had to write this post today because my blog schedule for the next 10 weeks is planned out in Trello and it sent me an email to remind me. If you don’t know Trello, check it out because it is a fantastic planning tool, which you can use like a super charged ‘to do’ list. As well as sending you email reminders of when things need done, you can also share actions with your team – if you’re lucky enough to have a team!
I use Hootsuite to schedule my social media messages for the coming week by spending an hour each Friday writing out the following week’s messages to go out on Twitter, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. I still check in with social media each day too, but by scheduling in the main messages that form the backbone of my social media communications each week, I only need to spend around 15 minutes of my time to stay on top of things and respond to any messages or comments that come in each day.
5. Get the Kids to Take Responsibility
My kids are 8 and 12 years old and so I expect them to lay out their uniforms and pack their school bags the night before. They also do LOADS of sport – so they need to plan for the following day making sure they have their hockey, athletics and swimming kits ready depending on what day it is. This is essential, as I’ve found that gum shields, for example, have a tendency to completely disappear from one week to the next, while swimming goggles enjoy a game of hide and seek. Looking them out before dinner the night before is, therefore, crucial (otherwise, I go slightly nuts the following morning).
Obviously, if your kids are younger, you will need to do more for them (which is where getting organised the night before comes in) but little ones can still help tidy their toys away or butter their toast at the table, giving you a spare 2 minutes to throw on a load of washing or even just to stick a dishwasher tab in and switch on the dishwasher.
6. Get off Facebook!!!
I am not about to go into a social media rant – because I love a bit of social media, the problem is that I love it too much. That quick catch up with friends on Facebook that was supposed to take a couple of minutes somehow always take 20, and don’t even mention Pinterest to me or I will start to develop an uncontrollable twitch and just HAVE to spend the next 30 minutes searching the Homes/Gardens/Blogging sections.
However, despite my love of social media, one of the best decisions I made was to take Facebook off my phone. It’s now only on my desktop and I don’t leave it open after checking it. Ever.
I only check my personal social media at lunchtime, while scheduling in 10 – 15 minutes during the day for all my work-related social media – answering comments on my blogs, responding to Tweets etc. I usually check in for another 10 minutes later in the day for another catch up, but that’s it!
If you have no will power, my biggest recommendation is to take your social media apps off your phone – although that might be a stretch for some and I certainly couldn’t do it with Twitter.
7. Ditto for Email
I timetable in specific times during the day to check my email and then close it down between these times. If I leave it open, I’m notified every time an email comes in and the temptation to answer there and then is just too high – although that might just be me.
What works for me is to spend up to 30 minutes in the morning checking and responding to emails before we leave for school, including clearing out my junk mail folder and checking nothing’s gone into spam that shouldn’t have. I’ll check in again around 11.30 for 15 minutes and then again about an hour before I leave to pick up the kids for school for 15 – 20 minutes, if necessary.
I do have email on my phone – essential for replying to clients when I’m poolside/trackside or wherever – but have become really good at not checking it during the day while I’m sat at my desk.
8. What’s for Dinner?!?
This is the cry that goes out in my house every afternoon, around about 4pm – with my response usually quickly followed by ‘but you know I don’t like that!’ (my daughter) or ‘HOW long will we have to wait?’ (my son). It’s a cry that can be immediately answered because I plan out all my meals and shop for them at the weekend.
Yes, there are places I would much rather spend my Sunday mornings than the local supermarket, but then again, I don’t want to have to dash in to the store from a meeting in the 5 spare minutes I have before school pickup trying to figure out what everyone will eat for tea before dashing out to hockey/swimming/guitar/Brownies (delete as applicable). So it’s all shopped, bought and in the fridge ready to be prepared.
Now, at this point, if I was really organised, I would say that I cook and freezer batch everything at the weekend, but cooking a week’s worth of meals on a Sunday afternoon is not my idea of fun. I’d much rather be down the beach walking the dog or out on a 10k run – but hey, if cooking is your thing, go with it. It will certainly make your week flow even more smoothly.
9. Get Help
If my friends and I are anything to go by, I’d say women are bad at asking for help. We don’t want to show that we’re not coping or we have memories of our mother’s dealing with it all and never complaining (although in all reality they probably locked themselves in the bathroom for 5 minutes peace when we got in from school and we just didn’t know!)
Let’s face it, even if you’re super organised, there are times when the wheels will come off the pram. Maybe your best client will demand a meeting that clashes with school pickup or your kids will have an activity that you just can’t miss. Or you might just need an extra hour to write that proposal/report.
In these circumstances, it’s important to remember that you’re not superhuman – and neither is anyone else – so just ask for help. Ask a neighbour, a relative or another freelancer that you know (who I am sure would be delighted to help out, as long as you return the favour in the future).
Play dates with friends go down a treat with my 2 and they never feel let down by their Mum if they know that they’re going to Granny’s or a neighbour’s house (sweets and the XBox being more likely to appear than when boring old Mum is around). So turn down the dial on your guilt, take a deep breath and repeat after me, ‘any chance you could take the kids for half an hour/an hour this week/every Tuesday…?’
10. Don’t Forget about you!
Reading this back makes me sound like a Stepford Wife, programmed to feed children, deliver them safely to school before returning to do a day’s work, so I should hold my hands up and confess that I am partial to a bit of ‘me time’ too.
Sadly, this does not involve quite as many facials as I’d like, but every morning after dropping the kids off, some friends and I walk our dogs on the way home from school. There’s nothing better than starting the day with a walk by the river, a bit of chat, and some fresh air – even if half the time it is raining (I did mention that I live in Scotland?)
I also like to run – yes really, I do – so I try to fit in a wee 10k on a Sunday morning and on a Wednesday night when my son is at athletics and my daughter in the pool for 2 hours, and so suffer no guilt about missing out on time spent with them.
Even if it’s just 20 minutes to drink nice coffee, eat a cake and read a trashy mag, try to have some down time planned into your diary at least once or twice a week. You’ll recharge your batteries, stop thinking about the routine, and come back to your work – or your Mum time – feeling refreshed and raring to go.
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Those are just a few of the ways that I’ve coped with a new business, two kids, a well-meaning but not terribly domesticated husband, a dog and 3 cats without going completely box of frogs crazy.
What about you? Do you have any tips to add to the list – or are you setting out on your freelance journey wondering how you’ll cope? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please, pop them in the comments below.