nonprofit consulting zone blog

Are you at work, or at work?

Are you at work, or at work?

Okay, I’m going to get a little metaphysical on here, but stick with me because it’s important.

Did you go to work today? So, what so metaphysical about that?

Think about it: did you really “go”? If you went, then where? If you didn’t go someplace, were you at work?

The real question is: is work a place, or is it a definition of time?

For consultants, this is an important question. Because the day you become a consultant, is a day you own your time. And with ownership comes responsibility.

The physical removal from one’s self from home to “go to work” is a very industrial age concept – at most 250 years old, and for most families, four generations ago – a minor blip in human history. Today, most paycheck jobs expect you separate yourself physically from home, which for many, means you also separate yourself mentally. Like a good habit, one (the physical separation) triggers the other (the mental separation) resulting in a reward (your paycheck). Once consulting, unless you buy or rent yourself an office to visit daily, that trigger is gone.

This has a significant implication for your consulting.

Without “work” to go to, work is then only defined by time, not a space. Take it a step further. That time need not all be in one block. In fact, if you examined your paycheck life closely, the time at work probably was not all one block, either. It’s just that the “bumper times” between meetings, checking Facebook or catching up on your weekends with your co-workers, were all folded into your paycheck. As a consultant, you own those times, not your employer. And with that ownership, comes responsibility. It’s still okay to take a 15-minute break for Twitter, now it’s just 15 minutes you don’t get paid for.

Until you focus yourself on the tasks at hand, preferably for a client but even for your broader consulting practice at hand (sales/marketing, billing, etc.), you’re not working.

The problem with having work more connected with time and less with space is that it is easy to cheat. Laundry is a great example. Pop a load in… apply yourself to a client project… the buzzer rings. Move the laundry to the dryer… buzzer rings… take it and fold or hang because wrinkly clothes mean another step: ironing. One cycle, at least two interruptions in your focus, not to mention the errant thought “will it be done soon?” If you had a paycheck job, you wouldn’t be around to do it. You’d do your laundry at night, maybe between another home task, like making dinner. Why not do the same, now?

Makes sense, right?

Maybe. The first person to convince that your work time is too valuable to spend doing the laundry, is you. What’s your incentive? How about money? Consulting leads to a check… laundry leads to… clean laundry. How about your client’s mission? If you do the laundry and take more time completing your project, maybe your client can’t feed as many children? If you get done your client work quickly, maybe you can spend more time with your family?

You can’t blame others for this, either. Even if you just take the afternoon off from your paycheck work to get a job done for a client that you are working for “on the side,” you’re vulnerable to neighbors, friends and family deciding that you’re available for their needs.

Your first step to stop this is growling “I’m working, don’t bother me!” But unless you convince yourself that your time is yours, not theirs, you feel guilty saying “no.”  Once you have yourself onboard, you can gently explain to others that you’re at work, (saying “I’m on deadline” can make it sound more urgent) and that you’ll circle back after “work hours,” whenever you decide that is.

While we’re talking about distractions that erode your time, let’s talk about what maybe the most insidious: the electronics in our lives. This is really where you need to know yourself, and be honest with yourself at the same time.

Social media may come first to mind. Turn off alerts and notices. For many, television is a problem. For others, it’s radio or recorded audio. It’s a fine line. Having background media on can cut some of the feelings of isolation in the day.

Being honest with yourself means actually admitting that while you really like it, watching your favorite game show at 2 PM each afternoon really kills your productivity. It’s quickly goes from being a treat that somehow you figure out how to give yourself daily, into a bad habit that erodes your ability to work with clients. Better to use that show as a motivation to make enough to invest in DVR (digital video recording) service.

Related, and just as essential, is knowing yourself. Brain science will tell us that the reason you find the background noise of talk radio distracting while you work (if you do), is that it uses the same brain pathways as the work you are trying to accomplish. Yet despite this information, it can take a lot of self-discipline to push the “off” button!

All of this sounds simple on paper, I know. The key, in my observation, is to know the value of your time and be persistent with yourself and others in protecting it. Sooner-than-later, you’ll develop a good habit.

So, did you go to work today? If you did, did you get anything done?

Published by

Matt Hugg

Matt's the president of Nonprofit.Courses. See his bio here.