I thought I’d take a break from my usual technical-style article and talk about the evolution of my working conditions from when I started in this business to now. Having been a professional web developer for about 12 years now (7 of them self-employed), I’ve gone through nearly the full spectrum of stress levels, physical condition and work environments. So this week I thought I’d put my own personal lessons into words, in case someone can benefit from them, or maybe drop a few comments on improvements I can make!
The Work Environment
I spent 5 years as an employee before realizing that it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I didn’t like
Cons of Employment
- The hour spent every day driving to and from the office.
- The two hour long meetings where maybe 10% was relevant to my current work.
- Job description creep – having to take on tasks unrelated to web development simply because you’re a “technical guy”.
- Being interrupted while having just gone 6 levels deep in thought to find a bug in my code.
- Having to pack a lunch or suffer the 2 pounds of salt at the fast food joint.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful towards past employers. They were excellent opportunities. I learned a great deal about how the industry “works” and what it takes to make clients happy. It just wasn’t really what I was looking for.
The sixth year, I found myself starting my own small web development business, imagining that all of the things I disliked about employment would be in the past. Well, they were, but other things took their place:
Cons of Self-Employment
- Very unsteady income for the first couple years.
- No health insurance, paid vacation or retirement contributions.
- Having to be the account executive, customer service rep, accountant, clean up crew, oh, and the web developer!
- Filing quarterly taxes and putting away a percentage of your revenue to pay taxes.
- Your workday is longer – there’s just no way around it.
- You might think your day is a bit more flexible, but you’re working with people that are in the 8-5 world, so you kinda have to be too.
For me though, the trade-off was positive and I’ve been running my own show ever since. So what have I learned in these past seven years of self-employment?
Pros of Self-Employment
- You can run a small web dev business from your home, and nobody thinks twice about your capabilities.
At first, I was a bit concerned that a prospective client might shy away from a guy in his late-twenties working from his house. I got over it real quick. Not only because none of my prospects actually cared, but it was actually an advantage. I was able to position my hourly development rate at about 25% less than other developers and still make as much profit – without the separate office expense. Not to mention the home office deduction to help out on your tax return.You really should only entertain the idea of renting office space if you expect to meet with many clients at “your place”, or you have a serious lack of focus and might find yourself watching TV instead of getting work done.
- You’re at work the minute you wake up in the morning.
You just gained 2 or 3 additional hours of billable time simply by sleeping 50 feet from your office. You can wake up, throw on a pot of coffee and get to work! In a traditional setting, you might wake up at 6AM, do your routine, drive to the office and really get focused in around 9AM. For some people, their morning routine might be considerably more efficient, but it’s still wasted time.
- You don’t need to lug equipment around.
Unless you’re really doing well and can afford to duplicate your high-end development setup (laptops, desks, monitors, etc) at home and at the office, you’re dragging that equipment back and forth every day.
Okay, this is a bit extreme. But, how many people drive home at least once a week on the expressway, with just a single lane open, because someone got in a car accident. People rush to work and they rush home, and accidents happen because of it.
Your Physical Condition
When you start working for yourself, perhaps the biggest change is that time is more closely related to money. When you’re employed, no matter how you spend your day, you’re still getting paid for the 8 hours you worked. As a self-employed web developer, you’re not getting paid when you meet with a client, eat lunch, or head to the gym for an hour.
This fact is what I think leads many self-employed professionals down a path of unhealthy living. We might tend to look at break times as lost income, even though they’re essential to our health. It took me 7 years to figure things out, but I finally have a system that keeps my body in tune while minimizing the loss of billable hours.
Keeping Your Health in Check from 8 to 5
- Sitting and standingYou probably know by now that sitting in a chair for 8 – 10 hours per day is not healthy. A few negatives include:
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Muscle stiffness
- Back and neck pain
- Metabolism slows down
Are you more a visual learner? Check out this infographic on the effects of sitting down.
We know it’s bad, so what can we do?
Modern software development offices often advocate the standing desk. But there are almost as many issues with standing all day as there are with sitting all day. Plus, it wears you down and isn’t very comfortable.
My solution to this was to purchase a sit/stand desk. It allows me to, within 5 seconds, easily adjust my desk to a sitting or standing height. There are many of these on the market. I went with the Ergotron WorkFit-D, Sit-Stand Desk as it was affordable and gave me enough desk space (48″). About every 90 minutes or whenever I finish a minor task, I change positions.
I’ve been using the sit/stand desk for about 5 months now and I absolutely love it. I can actually feel the improvement in not only my posture, but my general attitude towards working longer days.
- Taking BreaksTaking breaks between tasks is probably the most difficult thing to remember during our workday. Especially when we can’t start the clock on our next job until the break is over.I’ve found that I can make my break times not only more convenient, but more physical simply by putting a fitness mat in my office. It’s quick and easy to “shift over” to the mat for 5 minutes between projects to do some stretches, push-ups or sit-ups.Put a plant in your office. Watering it is another reason to take a break.If you like playing guitar, make sure it’s sitting pretty in a corner of your office, just ready to be strummed for a few minutes between tasks.You get the idea.
- NutritionThe good news is that there is far more potential for eating healthier if you work from home. The bad news is that it completely depends on your grocery shopping habits.If you buy potato chips at the store, there’s no way they won’t end up on your desk the next morning. Keep apples or carrots on hand for a snack and make it a rule that you can only eat a snack while you’re standing up.If you’re a coffee drinker and like to keep you’re coffee sitting on a warmer for two hours while you sip away at it, really think about what you’re doing. Would you keep warm milk on a counter for 2 hours, then drink it? The creamer in your coffee is spoiling away the whole time it’s being heated on the warmer. So you need to pick one – creamer or coffee warmer.
- ExerciseI’ve already mentioned the fitness mat. It’s a great idea, but it isn’t really the complete solution to staying physically fit when you have a desk job. You really need to include aerobic or weight training of some kind.I joined a gym about 2 years ago and found myself quitting within 2 months. Why? Because it took way too much time to put my coat on, drive back and forth to the gym, say hello to everyone in the gym and wait in line for the equipment I wanted to use.After those two months, I started investing in a home gym for the basement. Yes, it did cost me a few thousand dollars. But, between the gym membership costs and the amount of lost billable time driving to and from the gym, etc., I’ll have that money back in just a couple years.
Your Mental Condition
Being a freelance developer can mean spending half of your day making HTML changes to client websites, the other half creating mundane tools to update database records. Either way, freelance client work often is not as challenging as we’d like it to be.
Make it an absolute rule to spend at least 1/2 hour to an hour each day working on a side-project of your own, doing business development, and being active on social or developer networks.
If you skip this step, you’ll not only burn out quickly, but you’ll be ill-prepared when you do actually get that challenging project.
Managing Stress Levels
This is the one, admittedly, that I’m still figuring out. I’ve made progress, but I still think I could improve my stress levels a bit.
Do you have enough time to get the job done?
I would imagine most job related stress revolves around time pressure or deadlines. As a self-employed web developer, you learn quickly that the 8 to 5 workday is a dream. You will have some clients that require one or two-day turnarounds, others that afford you a week or more, and some that have a running to-do list that you complete as time allows.
Either way, if you start to develop a good client base and you don’t start work until 8AM, you’re in for all kinds of work-related stress. These are the habits I’ve adopted over the past several years that truly help manage my stress levels:
Stress-free Web Development
- Don’t set an alarm clock, but get to bed at a reasonable hour.
A flexible start time is one of the perks of self-employment, setting an alarm clock, no matter how early, negates the flexible start time.
- Get up early.
No alarm clock, but that doesn’t mean we sleep in. When you’re eyes open in the morning, get up, take that shower, eat that piece of toast and get to work! Preferably, you’re hitting the home office between 5AM and 7AM. This gives you a 2 to 4 hour time advantage over the rest of the working world.
- At the end of the day, create a quick to-do list for the next day.
There are many forms of this. I used to write my to-do list on paper but now, given that 100% of my assignments are provided via email, I simply mark tomorrow’s to-dos as “important” in my email client.
- Do not take random phone calls. Schedule set times for phone meetings.
Random phone calls are a great way break your train of thought and reduce your productivity. Encourage your clients to email questions and tasks.When you need to schedule a phone conference, give an end-time. If you leave it open-ended, you’ll have a tough time planning your day around it.
At the end of the day, I don’t have any regrets nor do I take for granted the awesome flexibility and great opportunities that come with being a self-employed developer. I’d like to keep doing it as long as my body, brain and sanity will allow me to. I hope the same goes for anyone else that decides to bet it all on themselves, and I hope my tips help out.