Set Your Own Hours

Like every other aspect of running a business, effective time management requires determination and a willingness to learn from experience.

By Anthony Noel

People decide to start their own companies for many different reasons. Usually those reasons are as individual as the person starting the venture. Sometimes, however, they are born of righteous notions voiced in ads in the back of craft magazines.

One of the more seductive of these notions goes something like this: "Be Your Own Boss! Set Your Own Hours!" For many, the thought of doing those two things is so irresistible and seems such a basic human right that the next thing they know, they are buying equipment, renting shop space (or converting their basement) and printing out business cards.

A few years later, the truth hits: (1) The bank is their boss, and (2) they set their own hours, all right - they can work whatever 80 hours per week they choose.

Maybe you are standing on the banks of the do-your-own-thing pond right now, about to jump in. If so, do not let the foregoing scare you off. Just know that when you jump, and each day after you take that leap, those words - "Set Your Own Hours!" - can be interpreted in two very different ways. It is how you hear them that determines your chances of leading a balanced life.

Those who have not yet taken the plunge tend to hear such come-ons and think, "Yeah! Finally! After all these years of working for somebody else, I can do what I want, when I want, how I want!" However, those of us in the water (most of us, at least) realize that those words mean exactly what they say.

Remember that "basic human right" I mentioned a few paragraphs back? It is a grossly erroneous notion. Until you let go of the idea that you have a right to anything and are owed something when it comes to making your living, you will never fully understand the persistent effort required to make it as a business owner. Every aspect of running a business requires careful thought and attention.

For example, the more methodical and persistent you are in understanding how your business gets, spends and makes money, the quicker your business will become and remain profitable. The more purposeful you are about how your business uses money, the more control over it you, as opposed to the bank, will enjoy.

Time is something you spend, too. Spend it purposefully and, like money, you can maintain control over it. But, like money spent carelessly or as if there were an infinite supply, time spent thoughtlessly will soon give time control over you.

It is entirely possible to "Be Your Own Boss" and "Set Your Own Hours." But the key to doing so successfully is taking both phrases at face value and refusing to be seduced by their more emotional aspects.

To successfully "Be Your Own Boss," you have to see the two sides of yourself: There is the one who pines for ownership as a freedom-granting vehicle, the silver bullet each of us dreams of in relation to work; and there is the guy who knows better and keeps that dreamer dude in line.

In the simplest terms, both ideas boil down to a familiar phrase: "Ability to work independently." Some folks have that ability. Many, many more do not. If you are the least bit unsure that you have it, do yourself a favor and stay up there on the banks of the pond.

It is difficult to overstate the size of the learning curve a business owner must negotiate in learning to spend time wisely, let alone spend it in a way that will afford him a life outside of work. The constant attention to scheduling and the effects of that scheduling on what it costs to produce jobs is daunting, and that is why so many of us wind up working 80-hour weeks.

But if you believe you have adequate patience, determination and, most importantly, a willingness to look at where you have been in order to give yourself a map for where you are going, you might have the discipline you will need to develop a profitable business and work a reasonable number of hours doing it.

Let me get specific.

  1. Set your hours of operation and the number of hours you personally will work daily in stone and refuse to deviate from them under any circumstances. You would be amazed (or perhaps you would not) at the number of small shop owners and managers who jump whenever a customer, current or potential, tells them to, then wonder why they have no personal time.

  2. Be prudent about supplying your cell phone number, and turn the thing off when you are done for the day. Do not turn it on again until you are back to work the next morning. It is one thing to tell people your work hours, but something else to enforce them. Being unreachable is the best way I have found to train people regarding when you are and are not available.

  3. Schedule new jobs by studying old ones. If you are constantly finishing jobs on deadline and putting in big hours that are beyond your normal hours of operation to do it, you are not learning from experience.

  4. Let them wait. This goes hand-in-hand with #3. Many of us have an internal voice that tells us we have to try to meet the often unreasonable deadlines our customers give us. We are so eager to please that we negate very real issues and tell ourselves (and worse, our customer), "Sure, we can get it to you by then!" Then, often as not, we find we are working beyond our normal hours of operation to keep our promise.

This gets us to the real challenge of the "Be Your Own Boss, Set Your Own Hours" thing. We want to please our customers, but the moment we let them dictate our schedule, we relinquish our control and with it, our time. The only cure for this is a strong willingness to say no; an almost dogged determination to let customers wait.

Look at those phrases one more time: Be Your Own Boss! Set Your Own Hours!

Are you still seeing them as notions of selective laziness, as some utopian vision of how your working life could be? Or, can you see them as the strict demands they really are, essential acts that can help you guide a company in doing its best work while giving both you and your employees a balanced life? We will continue along this path next month.

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