On Working From Home and Running a Business
If you work for yourself, you don’t have the luxury of being passive when it comes to things like community, finances, and work/life boundaries. These things are not taken care of for you by someone else. You have to take intentional steps and do your due diligence to make sure you are on the path towards “health” in these areas. Speaking of health, if you work at a desk, sitting and stationary all day, that, too, is just not healthy.
I’ve been working from home for myself for 3.5 years, and this past month I’ve been thinking about all the important aspects related to having a “healthy lifestyle” in the context of being self-employed and working at a computer all day every day.
If you just coast through your days, the natural trajectory will be downward, not upward. There is nobody to tell you when to take a break and when to call it a day. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of or to chat with at the water cooler. And if you work from home and work for yourself, there is no company retirement plan already set up for you, and your taxes are not automatically withheld.
And so, for those of us who work from home (and especially those of us who also work for ourselves) there is an huge need to take proactive measures to ensure the long term health of our body, our finances, relationships, creativity, and more.
Below I want to share with you the things I do to try and keep myself healthy. In 20 years from now I hope to be doing even better creative work than I am today. But that means in the mean time I need to stay physically healthy, creatively energized, all while continuing to run a profitable business. The good news is: it’s totally doable.
Before I quit my day job to write for this website full-time, I was already making some money on the side. In 2010 (the year before I started writing here as my full-time gig) this site was earning about $1,000/month from ads, sponsorships, and Amazon links. All the money I made from the site was “extra” — we didn’t need it as part of our monthly living expenses, and so it’s what I used to pay for new gadgets and software and to cover hosting costs, etc. I didn’t spend anywhere near the $1,000/month of this semi-disposable income, and so we set aside the extra into a savings account.
In February 2011 I took the leap and began writing here as my full-time job. Thanks to the extreme generosity of this site’s subscribing members, I’ve been able continue writing here for over three years now.
But there’s more to the story than that. When shawnblanc.net became my job, it also meant the income from the site was now paying the mortgage instead of being semi-disposable income. And so the first thing I did was establish a budget for my business.
I cannot express enough just how absolutely critical it has been to have a budget — both for our company and for our personal household expenses.
Did you know that most of America’s millionaires are people who earn low-six-figure incomes? They have a high net worth (between $1 – $10 million) because they live simply and budget their money.
That is the same philosophy I’ve followed with my business (and personal) finances. I don’t have a business credit card; I’ve never taken a business loan. Everything I buy that’s business-related I have cash in the bank for. And as a result, my company has been profitable since day one.
My point here is that those of us who work for ourselves — freelancers, contractors, small-business owners, et al. — must learn to budget and manage our business finances. The long-term health of our business and our household income depends on it. And that also means our long-term ability to do our best creative work depends on it as well.
That said, here’s my practical approach to budgeting and finances:
Business Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 3 months of operating costs in case everything goes unexpectedly south one day. This also helps with cash flow. For example: when you have sponsors and advertisers who pay net 30 or 60, you don’t have to live on debt until those invoices come in. In short, the money I’m using today to run my business is money that was earned 3 months ago.
Personal Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 6-12 months of household living expenses (food, mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc) in case all the income from my websites were to dry up overnight.
Cash envelopes for personal expenses: This is old-school, but it really works. My wife and I have been doing a cash envelope system for several years and it has been so great for our finances. Yes, there are apps which can manage our personal budget for us and can even track “digital envelopes”, but we like the physicality of actually using cash. There is more of a connection to how much you are actually spending. And we have found that we spend far less and actually accomplish far more than when we just had a general fund for all our variable expenses and simply made sure not to overspend.
Giving: My business gives 11% of its annual gross income to charity. Giving to others is very important to Anna and I, and over our years of marriage we’ve found that we give away less if we wait until there is an obvious need presented to us. So we are very proactive in making sure we are giving away at least a certain percentage of all our income.
Taxes: Get a good CPA who you can talk to any time you have questions or problems with your taxes. It should be someone who you trust. Let them tell you how much to set aside for your taxes, and then do what they say.
Investing: After charity and taxes, we take 15% of the company’s net earnings and invest it. Most of this is earmarked for retirement, but some of it I keep for investing in new ideas, etc. For example: I hired a professional designer and developer to help me build The Sweet Setup. I treated that as an investment in a new business, and now that The Sweet Setup is up and running, I am paying my investment back.
All this financial stuff isn’t anything new. In fact, that’s what makes it so sound — it’s old, tried and true advice. Basically, get/stay out of debt, live beneath your means, save for a rainy day, invest for the future, and be generous to those in need.
Recommended books about money
Mental / Spiritual / Emotional Health
This is actually more about staying creative than staying sane. Because, let’s be honest. To be a self-employed creative person, you kinda need a little bit of insanity.
Anyway, I think there are two important things when it comes to keeping our creative juices flowing and our minds sharp. We need problems that are exciting and engaging. And we need to keep learning and experimenting.
Recently I wrote an article about the fight to stay creative. There are things such as isolation, ambiguity, fear, anxiety, shame, doubt, comparison, and disillusionment that can hinder and stifle our creativity. And there are things such as community, clear goals, trust, experience, rest, and diligence that can help stimulate and encourage our creativity.
In short, it basically boils down to having fun and serving others (which looks different for everyone). And that’s why it’s important to recognize if and when you’re feeling angsty, depressed, dried up, and/or burnt out. And if so, talk to someone about it, get help, and give yourself permission to make changes that will bring fun and life back in to your work.
I love working at a desk all day. I’m a computer nerd, I love typing and reading, and this space is my little cockpit of creativity. But they say sitting for hours a day will kill you. Literally.
The default seems to be getting an “Executive Chair” from Office Max for $79, then having a bad sitting posture with hours of not moving. Followed up by spending the evening watching TV from the couch while eating chips and drinking beer. Sounds glorious and affordable. But I know what my mind and body will be like in 15 years from now if that’s the lifestyle routine I fall in to. And it’s just not worth it.
Hopefully, my best creative work is still ahead of me. And so I intend to be physically healthy and alert for the journey. What this looks like for me is four-fold: a standing desk, regular breaks to move around, regular exercise, and a healthy(-ish) diet. I say healthy-ish because I still like ice cream fried foods, but not every day.
When I first started working from home, I set up a standing desk. I stood for 6 months before I went back to sitting. It’s silly, but since I spend a lot of time doing creative writing all day, I never felt in the “creative mood” while standing. But now, three years later, I am seeing the negative effect of all the sitting I do. My metabolism has slowed down and my legs are often sore. So a few weeks ago I once again set up my standing desk. And, to have the best of both worlds, I went with this Jarvis Electronic Moving Desk Legs.
Though standing is better than sitting, you’re still relatively stationary. It’s important to move around regularly. You could get a treadmill to go under your desk, and maybe one day I’ll do that. But what I’ve been using for years is this BreakTime Mac app. When you begin working at your computer it starts timing. And then at an interval you determine (anywhere between 1 – 60 minutes) it will beep and remind you to get up and walk around for 3 minutes.
One of these alone is not enough. You really should consider standing. If you sit for more than a couple hours, get an ergonomic chair that encourages blood circulation and good posture. Move around every 30 – 45 minutes. Exercise. Eat well.
Work / Life Boundaries
One of the primary motivations behind me quitting my day job to work from home was that my wife and I wanted to have kids. And I wanted to be a very active and engaged dad. Having a thriving relationship with my two boys, my wife, and my friends and family is so important to me. And a lot of that just boils down to time. Put the phone away, Shawn. Turn off the computer, shut the office door, and go play trains with your boys.
I don’t think it’s about balance: equal parts work and non-work. But about boundaries. Giving each area the focus and attention it deserves.
What this looks like for me is that I have a daily schedule. The first half of my work day (7:30 am – 11:30 am) is spent working on the most important tasks of the day. This is when I do most of my writing and podcasting. Then I have lunch with my family, and work on less-important admin tasks in the afternoon. I also have a dedicated work space downstairs that is where I go to work.
Also: Thriving Professional Relationships
A life of long-term creativity doesn’t tend to happen in isolation — we need one another for input, advice, encouragement, ideas, and more. Which is why, hands down, one of the most challenging aspects that I have faced in my life of working from home has been the lack of face-to-face community.
Things still are not ideal — I would love to have a small team of comrades and co-workers that I meet for work every day, and hopefully one day things will reach that point — but I have some ways of staying connected and staying in community.
I’m in a few Group Me groups with some fellow nerds and we chat about life and stuff during the day; I talk with several friends over AIM / iMessage during the day; I go to a coworking space (though not as often as I used to); I get out and work from a coffee shop usually at least once or twice per week; I have lunch each week with a few friends; I go to local design/tech/small-business-owner meetups whenever possible; I go to design/tech conferences at least once or twice per year.
Also: Weekend Hobbies
Work with your head? Try resting with your hands. For one, I try to spend Saturday away from my computer. It’s our family day, and so we run errands, go to the park, hang out together, etc. Also, woodworking is my favorite hobby. One of my favorite ways to unwind from all the pixels is to build something with lumber and power tools.
The hard part now is to actually do something about this. If you’re like me, it’s pretty easy to look at an area of my life and instantly recognize that it could be better.
What I’ve found is that each of these areas serves as doorway to the others. Meaning, once you tackle one area — say, budgeting, for instance — then that gives you the momentum to tackle another area, such as having and keeping a schedule. So my advice is to pick just one thing you’d like to focus on and spend a month just slowly working on it, giving yourself lots of leeway and grace as you figure things out.
I for one hope to still be doing awesome creative work 20 years from now. There are a lot of approaches and a lot of answers to the above problems. It’s all seems to be such a moving vehicle, and you figure things out as you go. Which is why what’s most important is to simply start and take action.