When I was a solo founder, and I would tell people what I do, their first response would nearly always be: “Oh, I could never do that. I’d goof off all day. How do you keep from getting distracted?” The answer I generally give is that I’ve developed a routine which works for me, and I’ve made it a habit to stick to it. When you think about it, it’s really not that different from what most people do in their 9–5 jobs, except as a solo founder, you need to be disciplined enough to set up your habits yourself. And, now that I’m back to working at a company again, I find that I really benefit from all of these things: especially when I’m working from home.
However, it would be a lie to say it wasn’t hard at first. There are a few things which changed when I started both working from home, and working for myself.
I needed an office
This is for two reasons. First, and most obvious, is that I needed a quiet place to work and talk with my colleagues. It just isn’t reasonable to expect even the most accommodating family to keep silent all day while you work.
Second, I needed a gentle way to let my family know when I was working and didn’t want to be disturbed. It’s hard on everyone if you’re constantly saying: “Not now, I’m working” all the time: especially for kids. Even my wife, though with the best of intentions, found it irresistible to ask for my attention far too often for my ability to concentrate.
Having a separate room with a door gave me a clear signal that I’m working now. It made it possible for me, then, to come out and interact with the rest of the family when it was a good time for a break. It also gives me a clear distinction between being “at work” or “at home”, which is indescribably necessary when you spend nearly 100% of your time in the same building.
I needed a schedule
Of course, long hours are startups are proverbial. However, that’s not my problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. Without a schedule, I find that I feel relentlessly increasing pressure to work more and more hours. And, after a few weeks or months, I completely burn out and lose all motivation for two weeks.
For me, the schedule is about being deliberate about the use of my time. If I grant myself a certain amount of working hours for a given day, then I can feel good about having finished what I could reasonable do and giving myself a break. On the other hand, on days where I’m distracted (e.g., a dentist appointment), I know when I need to work a bit later to get the job done.
I needed a organizational system
It feels like, as a solo founder, my job jumps back and forth between long stretches where I’m pounding the keyboard building my product, and briefer stretches where I’ve got ten thousand little things to check off (e.g., incorporation papers, creating bank accounts, finding an accountant, etc.).
I’ve long been a strong proponent of the Getting Things Done methodology and the Things or OmniFocus products as a way to implement it.
Suffice to say, having a place to record all those little things is invaluable for two main reasons. First, it’s a way to keep me from forgetting them. Whenever something pops into my head which need to get done, I stick it in Things. Second, it it’s a way to let me forget them. Once they’re in my system, I absolutely trust that I’ll get back to them when appropriate, and I can simply stop thinking about them. This makes it possible to focus on something else without getting stressed when there are too many things to keep track of all at once.
Between those three things, I feel like my job kept the same structure built into it that most people’s jobs do. I get up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, do some more work, and then go home. I just didn’t have to commute.