I miss office meetings.No one is more surprised about that than me. I’ve had days when I was in meetings from the moment I walked into the office until the moment I left. I’ve opened Outlook some days and wanted to pull my hair out at the day set out before me. I’ve had to run from one meeting to another because Outlook stupidly allows people to schedule meetings back to back without even 3 minutes to get from one room to another. I have not been a fan of meetings.
But after being an employee for 24 continuous years, I’ve struck out on my own as a freelancer to try to have more balance in my life. But as I’m settling into new routines and trying to find new mechanisms to keep my day productive, I’ve come to appreciate many things about my previous life that used to frustrate me. Those minutes at the beginning of a meeting when people are still assembling and the room is filled with light banter. The way someone can say something funny a few cubicles over and everyone starts to laugh. Monday mornings, learning what my colleagues were up to on the weekend, often living vicariously through them.
Having taken for granted all the informalities of office life for so long, I now have a clear understanding now of how much they glue colleagues together. We take breaks in our day with each other. We commiserate things that go wrong over bagels. We share jokes in those 5 minutes before everyone turns up for the meeting. They may not be the most productive minutes of the day, but they have real value. We are, in all those informally spent minutes, a team.
As a solo freelancer, every minute of my day has value, too. But in a different way. Every hour I spend working has to be toward a specific purpose, otherwise I’m wasting my time. Every hour I don’t spend working, too, has to be toward a specific purpose, otherwise I’m not taking advantage of my time. It’s required me to think completely differently about how I work.
I have to find ways to replace those informal interstitial minutes that gave me a boost throughout the day. Emailing colleagues far away and awaiting a response isn’t the same as chatting while we’re making coffee. I understand completely how Facebook has become a sort of office banter for people who aren’t physically together. I check my Facebook updates regularly now to see who’s making what witty observation or who will point me to something interesting through a link. It’s now the virtual water cooler for me.
So I’ve devised my own set of rules for making the best of my new flexible schedule.
1. Be deliberate about when you are working and when you are not. If you don’t set up a schedule for yourself, the computer and pile of papers awaiting your attention will start to glow in the dark in the corner, making you feel guilty about not sitting down and working. If you are working from home, you can literally always see your undone work and it can drive you mad. Make a schedule for when you plan to work and stick to it.
2. Eight hours in an office with colleagues = six hours working solo. Maybe even less. When you lose the natural breaks in the day, it can become too intense to work for eight hours straight on your own. A full day as a soloist is shorter than a full day in an office.
3. Don’t let the morning get away from you. When you first don’t have to go to an office by 9 every day, it’s very tempting to fritter your morning away. You are so grateful that you’re not having to rush out the door and fight traffic that you linger over your coffee and the morning papers. It can be 10:30 a.m. before you realise it’s time to buckle down and you have already wasted good, quiet morning time to get things done. Mornings, at least for me, should be head-down work times. Gives you a jump on the day.
4. Give yourself time off. The whole point, for me anyway, of leaving a steady job was to have more time with my family and to myself. Don’t be so guilt-ridden about working less than 8 hours a day that you don’t enjoy the time you aren’t working. The worst of all worlds is to kinda-sorta start to work and then waste the day accomplishing nothing. If you don’t feel like working, don’t. Just figure out when you can make it up later.
5. Have your own “meetings.” It may be coffee with friends who also have flexible schedules. Or doing something stimulating or fun in the middle of the day, when there are less likely to be crowds. But find a way to occasionally take a break from your work and refresh your mind.
But as I’m newly learning how to be a soloist, I’d love to hear your ideas, too. How do I get the balance right and plug myself in to something that replaces the everyday interactions with colleagues?
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