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Self-Help For The Self-Employed: Keeping A Positive Attitude

A typical day in an office environment includes dozens of social interactions that serve as little mental boosts. Telling someone about your weekend, running a problem by a colleague, or even waving hello to someone in the hall seem to be insignificant events.

But it turns out that water cooler banter has a more important function than catching up on your favorite TV shows. Taken together, casual conversations can impact your attitude—and your productivity.

Self-employed people, who often work in relative solitude, don’t have these built-in outlets available to them each day. That sense of disconnect can lead to feelings of isolation. Whether you’re a little lonely or seriously down in the dumps, finding yourself in a funk is never good for business.

There’s plenty of proof that negative thinking is hard on your health—depression and stress suppress your immune system, which makes it easier to get sick and more difficult to get better.

But scientists are just beginning to articulate and measure the power of positive thinking. The Mayo Clinic identifies positive thinking as an effective stress management tool with a wide array of benefits.

In 2009, a group of researchers at University of Pittsburgh funded by the National Institutes of Health found that optimistic people had fewer chronic conditions and lower death rates.

And Carol Ryff, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been working with interdisciplinary teams to analyze the link between mind and body, has found that a good attitude can add years to your life.

Sounds easy enough, but in practice, positive thinking doesn’t always come easily. When you’re busy, it’s all too easy to adopt a negative attitude without really noticing. You may not even realize you’re having a bad day until someone asks you if something is wrong.

One of the benefits of an office environment is that the people you work with are informal monitors of your mental state.

When you’re self-employed, however, you’re responsible for taking your own mental temperature. The good news is that you can take some basic steps to maintain a positive outlook.

Get Physical

It’s important for everyone to eat right and exercise regularly. But it’s especially important for self-employed people, who are more susceptible than most folks to sedentary snacking.

Always make time for a respectable lunch (i.e., not popcorn), even if it’s at your desk. Make smart choices like apples, carrots or nuts if you like to graze in between meals. Chips, sweets and other junk foods will make you feel sluggish.

Exercise, we know, benefits the body and the mind.

In 2009, researchers at the University College London studied the long-term effects of regular exercise, which they linked to good mental health.

The short-term effects of exercise also give you a mental boost with the body’s release of endorphins, which alleviate stress and enhance feelings of well-being. A 30-minute workout can increase your productivity levels through the rest of your workday.

Make a conscious effort to incorporate different kinds of movement into your routine.

Break up your solitary workouts at the gym by joining a class that meets once or twice a week. Mixing things up is not only good for your body, but it’s also a good way to fight off the loneliness that can come with the self-employed lifestyle.

If you’re pressed for time, take 15 minutes for a quick walk outside. Say hello to the people you pass to maximize the benefits of your break.

Combat Isolation

Self-employment often demands long hours of hard work.

While working overtime in an office provides opportunities for human contact, working alone means becoming a borderline recluse.

Here are some ideas for coping with solitude.

  • Make the world your office by getting out from behind your desk and working somewhere new. For many people, coffee shops are the gold standard for second offices because they offer stimulation, ample workspace and plenty of caffeine. If you prefer a quiet environment, libraries and bookstores are also good choices.
  • Join a communal office. This practice, which is known as coworking, is a flexible and inexpensive alternative to leasing your own office space. Most places offer desks by the day, week or month. Coworking can provide a sense of professional community that you just can’t find at Starbucks.
  • Request in-person meetings, even when they’re not strictly necessary. These days, much work can be accomplished online, but that doesn’t mean you have to limit your human contact to e-mail alone. Any project can benefit from a little face time. And a strict agenda isn’t necessary. The only excuse you need to arrange a lunch meeting is the simple goal of touching base.

Focus On Core Responsibilities

In a large company, duties are divided among a variety of professionals in different departments like accounting, human resources and the IT help desk.

But, self-employed people are often required to wear many hats. That can create stress.

Try to minimize hassles in areas outside of your area of expertise so you can focus on the things you do best.

Keep good records in a centralized place and make a list of critical phone numbers (like your insurance company, attorney Internet service provider) to have on hand when you need to put out fires.

For large projects (such as creating a new website) or other big chores (like your taxes), consider seeking a specialist’s help. Hiring a consultant can help minimize stress and build hours back into your busy days. Working with other professionals is also a good way to insert more social interactions into your work life.

Network

Making new business contacts (and keeping up with the old ones) is an important part of anyone’s professional development.

But networking is especially important for self-employed people, who don’t necessarily have colleagues in the traditional sense of the word. These are the people who you can go to with industry-related questions or to bounce ideas off of when you feel like you’re at a dead end.

Here are a few simple ways you can widen your professional network.

  • Join trade organizations and professional associations
  • Sign up for local seminars and workshops 
  • Establish (or update) your LinkedIn profile
  • Participate in online forums and e-mail discussion groups with other professionals (both within and outside of your line of business)
  • Interact with local businesses you patronize on Twitter
  • Volunteer to find like-minded individuals with similar interests and skill sets
If you’re worried about revealing too many tricks of the trade to a competitor, look for people who are in your line of work with a different area of expertise.

Support Yourself

In theory, it’s great to be your own boss.

But in practice, many people are much more demanding of themselves than someone else would ever be. As a self-employed person, it’s in your best interest to be a caring, supportive boss to yourself.

If you worked for a manager who asked you to always work nights and weekends, or who berated you for a mistake, you might feel unhappy, resentful and frustrated.

The same thing happens when you’re too hard on yourself.

It’s fine to stay busy, but make sure you keep your expectations—and your schedule—reasonable. When problems arise, don’t dwell on what went wrong. Instead, stay positive by focusing on what you can do differently next time.

Also, take the time to acknowledge your achievements. A job well done deserves special recognition. Congratulate yourself on your accomplishments.

Celebrate the end of a successful project by taking a colleague or a client out for lunch. Take a long weekend after a particularly busy stretch. Build in rewards—whether it’s an afternoon at the movies or a much-needed vacation—to stay motivated and focused.

Find Balance

There’s an important distinction between taking advantage of the perks of self-employment and maintaining a strong work ethic. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

Being self-employed means that it’s OK to wear your pajamas to work when you’re sick with the flu, but it’s not something you should do every day.

The key is moderation. Go ahead and take the afternoon off when you feel like seeing a matinee, but don’t just drop everything every time you have the impulse to take a break.

On the other side of the spectrum, many people who work for themselves find it difficult to draw the line between their work lives and their personal lives.

It can be dangerous for workaholics to set their own hours. It’s OK to work through the night when it’s crunch time, but that’s not a sustainable pace. Experiment with your office hours—you don’t have to work 9 to 5, but setting a schedule goes a long way toward finding that elusive work-life balance.

For More Information


Find more information on strategies for maintaining your mental health at these websites.

The Mayo Clinic on habits that promote positive thinking

The University of Michigan’s tools for promoting emotional health

The Mayo Clinic on the health benefits of exercise