Facebook memories, free coffee, and 7 years of working for myself full-time

So, yesterday Facebook reminded me that 7 years ago, the guy outside the station gave me free coffee.

I didn’t know his name and I don’t think he knew mine.

He sold coffee outside my local station and, as I started and finished work late in an attempt to miss commuter traffic, there wasn’t usually a queue when I got there. This was a good thing because I was often late. I don’t like mornings anyway. Mornings when you have to go to a job that you don’t want to be doing any more – that’s a recipe for lateness!

So, there were no other customers and the coffee guy and I got chatting. He knew I was counting down the days to finishing life as an employee. To be fair, some of my colleagues knew about this countdown too. One of the lawyers used to joke with me and asked me most mornings how many days it was.

Saying goodbye

When it was 50 days away, it seemed like for ever! Then it was 30, 20 – then single figures! It was getting real!

On the last day, the guy selling coffee said he knew how long I’d been looking forward to this day and the coffee was on him! Such a nice thing to do!

I think things are always hard in the last few days of a job. I’ve never left a job to not have one – it was either to move to another job or to go self-employed. But you either find everyone that you ever knew wanting you to do stuff that apparently only you can do, just before you leave, or you end up doing the most boring things ever because everyone thinks it’s pointless for you to start something new. Or someone who hates you decides to give you a really awful project to do as a “parting gift”.

I’ve experienced all of these. But as I sat there on the train, drinking my coffee and doing the commute for the last time, I was excited!

A manager (not my manager, but one who often made time for me and helped me out) took me for lunch. I did very little work. I had a speech planned, but in the end couldn’t be bothered with most of it. Those who mattered knew how I felt, and those who didn’t, didn’t matter!

I went for hot chocolate with my team mate, one of the few people I’d genuinely miss, and then I got back on the train for the last time as a commuter.

I reached down and patted my golden retriever girl. Things would be different for my guide dog too. NO more cramped trains. Visits to the park in the daytime. I thought she might miss some of our friends, but she’d probably like self-employed life too. We’d both had a little taster of it when I tried to work from home once in a while, but that’s really not the same as doing it full time.

And all of that was seven years ago now – it feels like much longer than that! I’ve moved house twice, once to a new town, started a relationship, got engaged…

First months

The business isn’t actually seven years old this month – I began it in the April and worked on it part-time. But it really felt like it was happening when I handed in my laptop for my old job, gave back my security pass, and said goodbye to the people who were now my ex-colleagues!

I’d given myself 9 months to decide whether it was going to work out. After all, I had no idea. I had a concept and a couple of customers already, but no guarantee that the idea was viable. I was the sole breadwinner, so I needed it to work. Perhaps if I had been really happy in my last job, I wouldn’t have felt as empowered to leave, but I knew I was taking a risk. The couple of people who said I was crazy actually inspired me to prove them wrong, and everyone else was pretty supportive.

I decided that if things weren’t working out after 9 months, I had a couple more months to find a new job before things got really desperate! “Working out” didn’t mean earning the same as I used to, but it did mean that things were going in the right direction and I thought there was a realistic chance of English with Kirsty providing me with a reasonable income and way to pay the rent, have some kind of social life, and facilitate me doing the things I wanted to do.

I worked really hard during those first months. Too hard actually – I didn’t make time for friends or take any time off. So that was my first lesson. I’d always thought my time management was pretty good, but I can get hyper focussed on something to the detriment of everything else. I still made sure my dog was taken care of and basic things like that, but life had got a bit out of balance!

Once I’d got into the swing of things, I loved it. I knew I’d love working from home and not sharing my office with anyone. I was disciplined enough to make it work, and I enjoyed having the ultimate responsibility for decisions. If something goes wrong, it’s my fault and I’ll do better next time, but I’ll never again have to pay lip-service to something that I think is a really stupid idea!

Seven years later

I’ve learned a lot since then! I’ve learned that some months are better than others, and you need to take a longer-term view, not letting how you feel about yourself be determined by how busy you are on any given day.

I’ve learned that not everyone who offers training in the areas that you need will do a good job, but there are some fantastic people out there.

I’ve learned that quality of life is more important than climbing the career ladder in the traditional sense, especially if the latter is making you miserable. Yes, it’s still hard when I see what other people are doing now who carried on in the direction that I was going. Sometimes it’s hard not to compare myself to them – usually if I’m having a bad day anyway! But I chose a different path, and there’s a lot to be said for going to work with a smile because you enjoy what you do, and not having the awful Sunday night feeling where you’re dreading Monday morning!

I’ve learned that you don’t only need people in your own industry in your network. There’s a lot of support to be gained from other self-employed people, even if you’re working on completely different things.

I’ve learned that things change, and you have to keep your eye on the ball – things that worked in 2012 are not working now, but there are some new ideas that are working really well.

I’ve learned that people who annoy you before they’ve even signed up will probably continue to annoy you if you decide to work with them. First impressions can tell you a lot, so try to attract the people with whom you’re going to enjoy working!

I’ve learned that some of the best parts of my job are when you see how you’re making a difference to someone’s life.

I’ve learned that it’s good to take stock of where you are and where you want to be – stopping some activities when they’re not adding value, and realising when it’s time to grow. That’s why I added a second website this year called EwK Services, for all my translation, communication, and accessibility consultancy services.

I’ve seen my website grow from something with four or five pages, to one that has a blog, a podcast, and plenty of resources for people who want to learn English.

I’ve developed new skills in marketing, podcasting, bookkeeping – if you don’t outsource, you learn to do things yourself.

I’ve written and published two books.

I’ve met really interesting people from different countries and with fascinating stories.

I’ve found a way to use my German skills –something I always wanted to do, but never managed when I was employed.

I’ve become a teacher – something I’ve been wanting to do since I was about 5!

I’ve been able to move and not remain tied to a physical place – after all, my customers are in at least four different countries and they don’t care where I am as long as I have a good internet connection. This is also great when there’s snow outside, or when I’m managing other health issues – working from home really is the best option for me.

I’ve learned to celebrate the small wins – and the big ones too! To recognise them and acknowledge the work that went into achieving them.

I’ve got something that I have built. I ask others for help when I need it, but this is something that I started, at a time where online training wasn’t as common as it is now.

It definitely hasn’t been easy. Starting something from scratch never is, especially when it means you have no guaranteed set income each month as you do in paid employment. You have to earn it!

There have been setbacks, such as the time when I moved and the stupid phone company didn’t get my internet connection sorted out quickly. There was the time when I could no longer use the site where I’d found a lot of my customers and my main marketing strategy had to be replaced, pretty much overnight. There were times when big customers’ contracts came to an end and they had to be replaced or there’d be a gaping hole in my earnings. There was the time when I had more requests than I could handle – mainly because I was under-pricing my services. But all of these things taught me something as well and gave me tools to use if something similar happened in the future.

It’s good to plan and look forward. But sometimes it’s also good to look back and remember the journey so that you can see how far you’ve come. This little Facebook reminder helped me to do that yesterday.

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10 advantages of working from home

It’s not for everyone, but working from home has a lot of advantages. Here are a few that are important to me.

Ok, I used to have a laugh with my colleagues sometimes, and random kitchen chats added some variety or introduced me to new people. But overall I’m happy to be working from home and I know I’m more productive now. What do you think?

1. Control over my working environment

This is a big one. It’s basic things, like deciding how warm it should be in your working space. I used to sit under a cold air vent, and typing in fingerless gloves is not fun! It’s also about being able to control other things, such as noise. I need it to be quiet when I’m working, and people chattering away, singing, having loud conversations at the end of my desk, banging doors – all of these things take away a bit of my concentration and make me work harder to focus again.

No background noise at a volume that, for me at least, is higher than background noise (TV etc.) should be. No noisy printer or constant ringing of phones.

In my office, none of these things happen , so I’m more productive.

2. Communication on my terms

For me, this means nobody randomly showing up at my desk demanding my attention, and there are not several conversations at once.

Due to the fact that I spend a lot of time in meetings, I’ve pretty much trained my customers not to call me. Everything gets done by email or message, and I can answer people when I have time.

Also, it’s not a constant stream of chatter – I can deal with people one at a time.

I can listen to and follow multiple conversations, but it drains my energy. I don’t always want to, but my brain doesn’t filter noise out as some people’s do. Your brain might hear a ticking clock or a barking dog and dismiss it, because it’s not important, but I hear and process all the things. So at my birthday dinner, I was aware of most of the conversations around my table, but probably only the people immediately next to me thought I was listening to them. That amount of concentration, voluntary or involuntary, takes energy.

3. No commuting

Yay! I worked in London for around 11 years and had a 3-hour commute each day for about 9 of those. I read a lot of books during that time, but it’s a long time. Some of that was walking, some of it was train journeys, and some of it was waiting around. 3 hours is an estimate for a normal day. When trains were delayed or cancelled, it was longer. I’m not sure I could do it now!

Also, when it snows, I can build a snowman while others are working out how they’re going to get home!

4. Setting my own hours

This is more about working for yourself, but I can go into my office for an early morning meeting or stay late to get something finished without having to think about transport, who’ll be in the building, whether I’ll have access to what I need etc.

5. my own space where nothing moves

I was lucky really in my previous jobs. Even when we had the hot-desking policy, I set down my dog’s bed, set up my equipment, and everyone knew that was my space.

Especially when you’re unable to see, knowing where things are is important. In my last job, we had a clear desk policy, which meant that all personal items had to be tidied away at the end of the day. It didn’t really work as far as I could tell. Tidy people cleared the few things they had away, whilst untidy people just left their trail of destruction.

But it took time to put everything out again, and I don’t have to do this now. No helpful cleaning staff move or put things in an odd place. Nobody borrows or adjusts my chair. Nobody gets between me and my coffee!

6. Better sickness record

I think this may have something to do with the fact that I’m happier, the fact that I’m not commuting in the rain and snow, or just the fact that I’m self-employed, which means that no working = no income! But I also think that not having to sit in an office with other people who are unwell also helps me to stay healthy. Of course I have friends who might be unwell, and S might pick up something from his colleagues or customers, but I’ve had way less sickness absences now than I used to.

7. Healthier eating choices

I guess this could go either way for people working from home with instant access to the fridge, but I actually think I make better choices now.

As someone with a visual impairment, the crazy sandwich shop rush at lunch time was something I tried to avoid because I could never work out the queue or when it was my turn. This meant that most of the time I would take my own food in because I couldn’t guarantee that I’d find someone who wanted to go out when I did. So I’d often make myself some sandwiches or something to put in the microwave.

But if you add in travel time, I was out of the house for a long time. In practice this meant that I ended up taking more food and things to snack on to keep me going until I got home and could cook something.

8. No boring lunch breaks!

I usually took the 30-minute minimum lunch break, ate something, took my dog out, and if there was any time left, went online or read something. But apart from caring for my dog, or the times I decided to do something with a colleague, I often felt as though I was making time pass. Now I don’t usually take a long lunch break, but if I have something at home that I want to do, I can factor that in to my break. If the weather’s good, I can take my lunch outside.

9. I don’t have to share

There speaks the only child! But it’s true – I have an office to myself. Of course I still come into contact with people. I did a quick exercise to see how many people I communicate with in an average day and it’s somewhere between 30 and 50. But it comes back to point 1 I suppose – I’m in control of my own space and of whom I invite into it.

10. Decent coffee

I mentioned my new coffee machine recently. Even before that, I had one of the older type coffee machines in my office. Where I used to work, there was no machine – so you either had to buy one on the way in or drink instant coffee. Since then I’ve discovered the coffee bags, but still, my Nespresso machine is better than anything I’ve had access to at work! Ok, it depends where you work – but decent coffee was never part of my employee benefits package!

So, do you work from home? Would you like to? Can you think of any more advantages? Or would you miss your colleagues if you had to sit in an office by yourself all day? Let me know in the comments!

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Working from home -is your chair right for you?

This is the story of how I went out for a pint of milk and came back with a new office chair!

We needed a couple of things from the supermarket, and S decided he wanted some stationery and office supplies too. I went along for the ride and when we got to the shop, we started talking about chairs and the fact that I should probably buy a new one. What better place to do it than a place where you can go and sit on them all to try them out?

I’d had my other chair for ages. The bit below the seat had something wrong with it, which made it tilt to the side. I used to work in Health and Safety (don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a health and safety lecture!) and knew better than to keep using it – it’s not good if you’re either leaning sideways or compensating for a leaning chair.

So I had taken S’ old chair, which I’d become quite fond of after it was the only way I could get around safely in the kitchen when I had my accident and couldn’t put weight on my leg. A girl needs a safe way to move coffee and hot food around, so round and round the kitchen I wheeled! But this chair was too low, even for a short person like me, and the mechanism for lifting it was broken. Not a massive deal, but it did mean my hands were too high for typing, and I spend a lot of time at my desk.

It’s like Goldilocks and the 3 bears – this chair is too wonky, this chair is too low, and this chair is just perfect so I’ll buy it and take it home. Or something like that!

I did want to mention it though because more and more people are working from home, if not full-time, then for a couple of days a week. Then there’s studying or blogging, and people like me who work from home full-time. Is it really important what you sit on?

The answer is yes, and here are a few reasons why.

1. Length of time

I’ve touched on this already, but whereas you might spend half an hour at the dinner table, your office chair is somewhere you might be sitting for hours at a time. It’s not good to be sitting uncomfortably or in a position that encourages bad habits such as slouching. Bad posture can lead to other problems later such as back, neck or shoulder problems if you’re sitting uncomfortably, flopping forward, or if you don’t have enough support.

2. Height

It’s important to have a height-adjustable chair because if you’re too low, you’ll have to lift your arms and shoulders up at an uncomfortable angle when you want to type. As a general rule, your arms should be straight.  If the chair is too high, and this was often my problem in the office if someone had been sitting on my chair, your feet aren’t flat on the floor and you don’t have any support. Also, a chair that’s too high ends up with too much pressure on the back of your thighs because your feet aren’t taking any of the weight, and having no support for your feet can also lead to foot pain later in the day. You might also want to consider a foot stool if you don’t want to, or can’t lower your chair.

3. Back and shoulder support

It’s easy to slump forward when we’re working. I don’t tend to do it in meetings – then I’m thinking about sitting up straight because I want to look professional. But if I’m typing away on something on my own, there is a tendency to lean forward, and this isn’t good for your back or your shoulders. Office chairs have padding around the back and many also have neck and shoulder supports. Using these encourages you to sit up straight and not hunch your shoulders forward, as doing these things can lead to back, neck, or shoulder pain. So try not to perch on the front of your chair. Make full use of the supports, from the lower back to the shoulders.

4. Padded seating

Think about the chairs you used to sit on at school. After an hour of sitting in the same position with no support, it gets uncomfortable. You might be fine having a picnic on a garden bench for a while, but if you’re going to spend 8 hours sitting somewhere, you need a bit more padding. Apart from the obvious discomfort, fidgeting around trying to make yourself comfortable isn’t good for your concentration or productivity either.

5. At work it’s someone else’s responsibility

At work we sometimes take it for granted that our employer carries out DSE (display screen equipment) assessments to check that our workstation is set up correctly and we have what we need. Ok, obviously some companies are better at meeting these requirements than others, and I was pretty lucky, but the point is, it’s a company’s legal responsibility. When you’re self-employed, you don’t have someone reminding you about it or checking that it’s been done, but it’s no less important when you’re the boss! There can be 101 things that feel more urgent or directly linked to making money, but if you’re self-employed and don’t look after yourself, who else will?

6. You’re an individual

Everyone needs and likes different things, due to factors like our height, the shape of our back, any existing pains or conditions, and just what we find comfortable. This is why I haven’t put a link to my chair on the blog.

I didn’t get the most expensive one I could find. The cost did play a role for me, but also, I didn’t find the most expensive ones were the most comfortable. The absolute cheapest ones weren’t either – I went for a mid-range one, and if you go for one from a specialist shop, you can pay a lot more than I did. But it was important to me that I could sit in them, adjust them, and see which I thought would be comfortable.

7. It’s not all about the chair

It’s important not to spend long periods of time sitting without taking any breaks. This is partly connected to the amount of time you spend looking at a screen, but it’s still important for people like me who can’t see the screen, because it’s not only about screen time. It’s about giving your body the chance to move around and not be stuck in the same position for hours on end.

Try and build in reasons to get up throughout the day, even if you work from home. Make drinks, tidy up, stretch your legs, take the dog for a walk – whatever you’re doing, make sure that you also build in breaks that involve some kind of movement so you’re not just stuck in a seated position all day. This is particularly important for those of us who don’t naturally get the exercise of walking anywhere on the way to or from work.

How about you?

Do you use an office chair when you’re working at home? Is it comfortable? Does it give you all the support you need?

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