Independent professionals

Independent professionals include those who are self-employed, work from home or remotely, and often work in isolation. While working in isolation could be either a choice or necessity, it may present unique challenges to physical, mental and professional well-being. Included are some valuable insights and suggestions to balance these challenges with the potential benefits of independent work are offered.

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Common challenges

Working independently can be very attractive for some people.

It can offer a greater degree of independence, autonomy, flexibility, and work-life balance. For others, it is simply a lack of alternative job opportunities. Some achieve the work-life balance they sought, but many more do not.

Working in isolation can present many challenges, including:

  • Concern that your work is not taken as seriously as if you were a full-time employee.
  • Worries about finding enough work to support you and your family.
  • Stress about having enough money to survive potential disabilities or illnesses.
  • Actual or perceived lack of resources, support or professional development opportunities.
  • Lack of recognition, support or praise by others.
  • Chronic stress because you feel you need to constantly be “on” and “at work.”
  • Being or feeling ignored in strategy, planning or policy agendas.
  • Concerns about getting bad reviews or not being paid by clients.
  • Working from home comes with some unique challenges. 

Many independent professionals can identify these challenges and develop their own solutions. But there are also those that just push through and continue to work at risk to their own physical, mental, and professional well-being.

Shared solutions

While some of these concerns may never completely disappear, many independent professionals have found ways to minimize the impact or shorten the duration of distress. What follows is a series of tips and strategies, often from those who learned them the hard way. They focus on both practical strategies and well-being tips. Not all will work in all situations, so consider the ones that might work for you.

Many of these challenges are common, and we can learn from those who have successfully overcome them. The intent is to help you discover solutions that work before any damage to your health or well-being occurs.

Tips for managing on your own

Some independent professionals are inclined to jump right in and start doing the work they are passionate about. Early planning can help prevent challenges later.

Starting out

  • Know what you do well and where you may need advice or support.
  • Find your purpose and why you are doing what you do.
  • Be clear on what you’re “selling” – how is it of value to others?
  • Identify income streams and potential clients. Be clear about the kinds of clients you want to work with and plan to pursue.
  • Research the feasibility of your business idea and price structure.
  • Avoid charging too low – it may be difficult to raise prices later.
  • Consider best- and worst-case scenarios and how you’ll manage.
  • Learn how to reach your potential clients effectively – like advertising, email, cold calls, networking and social media.
  • Consider networking virtually, such as with LinkedIn, or through associations or meetups.
  • Create and update a list of providers for services such as tech repair, transportation, website update, and printing.
  • Take the time to create the best environment for you – a comfortable and ergonomic work-station, silence or pleasant background sounds like music, good lighting, exposure to nature, comfortable temperature, no distractions and access to water.
  • When possible, work in a different space from time to time for a change of scenery. Even moving to a different room in your home or to a café can provide you with a fresh perspective.

Managing money and regulations

  • Do not avoid or deny cash flow issues no matter how much you dislike this part of your work. Force yourself to review income and expenses monthly and do regular cash forecasts.
  • Know what resources are available for a business like yours such as funding, corporate sponsorship, donations, grants, discounts and memberships.
  • Consider saving yourself time and stress by using the services of virtual assistants, social media specialists, bookkeepers, web programmers, house cleaners and grocery delivery and others.
  • Know how to register your business with the government, such as applying for tax numbers.
  • Do not avoid or delay compliance with regulations or professional or reporting requirements such as taxes and business licences.
  • Seek advice from professionals such as lawyers and accountants early on in your career and take advantage of free guidance from bankers or accounting or legal associations.
  • Begin saving from day one, even if it is just a small amount each week.
  • Know what you can write off and keep all receipts and your travel log in one place. Write directly on the receipt what it is for when you get it to prevent having to guess later.
  • Know and budget for what you want or will need, such as personal development courses, technology, promotional items, advertising, office materials and supplies.

See Income sources if unable to work for ideas for income sources if you are unable to work.

Many independent professionals struggle with charging what they are worth, collecting payment in a timely manner or meeting the obligations of being a small business owner. The stress from this part of work can be intense. Here are some tips from those who have been there:

  • Have consistent pricing and billing terms and conditions.
  • Get a deposit before you begin work on a project.
  • Bill as soon as a project is completed – do not delay.
  • Follow up immediately when payment is past due.
  • Invest in systems to support you – such as bookkeeping services and accounting software.

Time management

  • Schedule your week first, then your day.
  • Prioritize in a way that works best for you – do the most complex work when you feel most alert and save easier or routine work for when you have less energy.
  • Place every potential or actual commitment in your calendar and block time to meet your obligations. This can include paying tax installments, calling clients back, deadlines for project milestones or your family members’ birthdays.
  • Organize every day using reminders or alarms for tasks, phone calls and meetings to keep you on track, especially when work or life may cause distractions.
  • Update the next day’s “to do” list as you are winding down each day.
  • Focus on only one task and limit the time you will spend on it. Consider using a timer on your phone to let you know when the time is up – this can help optimize your efficiency.
  • Create and comply with your own work policies to keep a reasonable schedule, such as the hours you will work each day, break times and holidays.
  • Set up “out-of-office” notices when you will be unavailable due to either personal or professional demands. It can help reduce your stress and manage client expectations in terms of a response.
  • Try to avoid delaying decisions. Making difficult decisions, even if they are not easy, is better than allowing it to stress you out for days or weeks.
  • “Good enough” is often enough to get started – don’t wait for perfection.

Aligning work with values

When beginning as an independent professional, many find themselves chasing every opportunity. This may mean taking any and all work for fear of never getting another offer. This can lead to doing work that is not aligned with your passion, or even your skillset, and can lead to a lack of job satisfaction, poor quality of work or exhaustion. All of this can lead to burnout. The following are some ways to remain true to your personal values:

Establish your values

  • Identify your values and reassess them over time. The Identify your values worksheet may help.
  • Set clear boundaries about what you will or will not do.
  • Clarify what is important for your well-being and protect time for it in your calendar, for example, exercise, family time, volunteering, reading, and calling friends.
  • Plan for resilience to withstand the challenges that are a part of life.

Values in action

If you compromise your values or integrity for work, it can leave you drained and in extreme cases leave you suffering from moral injury. By being aware of your boundaries, values and what’s important to you, you can:

  • Always do what you believe is right so that even if you make a mistake, you will know it was with good intentions.
  • Build professional relationships with all clients, providers, suppliers and competitors.
  • Fire clients or suppliers who disrespect you.
  • Say no when a project, approach or relationship is likely to compromise your integrity.
  • Do not do work for unreasonably low rates “just to get work”, unless you also feel it serves a greater purpose. Charge a rate that shows you value yourself and the quality of what you offer.

Reviewing, reflecting, revising

Some are guilty of working very hard, but not reflecting on enhancing their approach or outcomes. Taking time to do this regularly can provide you with a process of continual improvement. This can result in benefits for your bottom line, but more importantly, can help maintain your passion and job satisfaction.

  • Regularly schedule time to reflect on what you have already accomplished and how you have addressed challenges.
  • Identify what parts of the work give you the most energy and what parts are more likely to drain your energy. Then, consider how you can have more of the first and less of the second.
  • Set goals for your business that help you maintain a steady income, such as investing in a rental property or other business activities where you are not directly involved. This is called passive income.
  • Each day reflect on those moments when you did well at work.
  • Keep all expressions of appreciation for what you do, whether they are emails, cards or texts, and display them somewhere you can easily see them.
  • Ask clients and colleagues for feedback and testimonials during and immediately after working together.
  • Create a vision board – images of your goals and desires related to your work and life.
  • When possible, take on challenges and go beyond your comfort zone to keep you energized.
  • Recognize what is not working and change it or let it go.
  • Be a seeker – look for new solutions, improvements, technology, lessons and other new ways to keep you fresh and current.
  • Question your assumptions about ideas, people and strategies. Think outside the box.
  • It is okay to not always know the answers. In fact, it is often useful to be skilled at asking questions.
  • Recognize unhealthy patterns and systematically begin to replace them with healthier strategies.

Lifelong learning

One challenge can be the lack of opportunities or resources for ongoing professional development. Learning something can renew your energy and help you stay on top of the latest innovations.

  • Make ongoing education and training a priority to remain current in your field.
  • Explore hobbies or interests that are outside of your field.
  • Find affordable, low to no-cost sources for learning, such as webinars, audiobooks, online classes, seminars, podcasts, industry magazines and TED talks.
  • Ask if you can shadow someone for skills or work you want to learn more about.
  • Budget for education that will help you explore new opportunities to grow and learn.
  • Be open to trying new things. Don’t assume you know what you like. You might be surprised!

Wellness strategies

The first thing that may go when we are busy or stressed is attention to our own physical and mental health. Being aware of this tendency is the first step but there are many strategies that can further help.

Physical wellness strategies

  • Listen to your body. When you need to, take time to rest and heal. Do not just push through.
  • Consider techniques to improve your posture.
  • Book annual dental, eye, physical, and mental health check-ups a year in advance.
  • Walk and talk – if your job requires a lot of phone or meeting time, consider walking while talking.
  • Dance or sing (or both!) to help relieve stress and increase joy.
  • Choose exercise that you look forward to doing – sports, dancing, playing with pets or children, listening to music or audiobooks while working out – whatever it is, make sure it is fun for you.
  • Eat healthy foods. You don’t necessarily have to give up less healthy food. Just eat the healthy stuff first. Make the less healthy food harder to get to by not keeping it in your home or workplace.
  • Stay hydrated. Keep track of how much water you drink and make sure it is at least 2 litres a day.
  • Breathe deeply whenever you can to increase your physical energy and improve your focus.
  • For more ideas, see Relaxing break activities.

Mental wellness strategies

  • Become familiar with your stressors and develop a list of strategies you can do or use to maintain balance when dealing with them.
  • Identify activities that calm your mind and try to do one daily – read a book, go for a walk, watch television, knit, colour, garden, cook, yoga and others.
  • Take regular, healthy breaks throughout your workday. They can help optimize your productivity.
  • Use apps that help you relax through guided meditation, mindfulness or music. See Mental health apps for some ideas.
  • Read poetry or inspirational quotations each day.
  • Spend time in or around nature including indoor plants or trips to greenhouses.
  • Learn to Tame your self talk to be less negative.
  • Write down your thoughts, whether they include fears, hopes, dreams, goals or appreciation, to help make them easier for you to understand and manage.
  • Learn more about how to Manage stress.
  • For more ideas, see Energizing break activities.

Additional strategies to maintain calm and balance

  • Apply what you already know about self-care and be consistent.
  • Allow yourself time to disconnect from all devices every day.
  • Give yourself permission to cry if you need a release of emotion.
  • Create and maintain a social support network. If you do not have one now, begin reaching out to help others. Those you help now are very likely to become supports for you in the future.
  • Specifically share with loved ones the type of support you need from them and the type of support you can provide.
  • Resist comparing yourself with others. Instead, become the best version of you – at work and at home.
  • Do not be afraid of failure or the opinions of others. Consider failure or criticism as potential learning opportunities on the way to success.
  • Focus on breathing deeply and intentionally releasing negative thoughts and energy before and after client meetings, especially difficult ones.
  • Find ways to stay mentally well – like therapy, spiritual groups and supportive friendships.
  • Trust your intuition and question your fear.
  • Let go of regret, shame and guilt. If there is a need to make amends, do so. But then, move on. These negative emotions serve no other purpose but to help us choose how to be better and do better going forward.
  • For more ideas, see Calming break activities.

Accepting help

You’ve chosen to work on your own, so it is possible you are fiercely independent and have trouble asking for help. This can have a very negative impact on your ability to bounce back from adversity. We all need help now and then. If you can learn how and from whom to ask for help, you’re more likely to maintain success.

  • Identify or build your support network from family, friends, mentors, collaborators, life coaches, peer supporters, trusted advisors, good listeners, innovators, professionals, volunteer counselors and colleagues.
  • Know in advance who can provide what kind of help, such as a supportive ear, a kind word, a laugh, critical analysis, wisdom and motivation.
  • Learn how to ask for help. Consider what is needed rather than what you need. For example, instead of saying, “I need you to do this thing for me,” you might say, “This thing needs to be done.” You can reduce the fear of rejection by not making it personal. For example, instead of saying, “Can you do this thing tomorrow?” you might say, “Do you know of anyone who could do this by end of day tomorrow?”
  • Let go of past mistakes so you can go on to try new approaches. Whatever it was, you cannot change the past, but you can create a better present.
  • Remember challenges you overcame in the past. List the people who helped and the strategies you used. Consider how a similar approach might work for you now.
  • Seek the opinion of those you respect when you feel uncertain about your work. Just talking out loud about the problem may support your own solution.
  • Reach wide to gather advice and information. Consider all opinions, but then act on what you believe will work for you.

Saying no

Just as alignment with our values is a good reason to say no on occasion, it may be a good business strategy to decline work when you really don’t have the capacity to be successful. It can prevent frustration or burnout for you and avoid damaging your professional reputation.

  • Imagine how you might feel taking the project on and how you will feel declining it. Go with what makes you feel empowered and strong.
  • Always follow your values and sense of integrity to say no respectfully. “I don’t have the capacity to take this on right now,” or “This isn’t a good fit for the direction I’m going right now.”
  • If possible, recommend a trusted colleague or resource that might be a better fit.
  • Before you say no to a project you really want to take on, consider if there are ways to increase capacity– such as outsourcing part of the project.
  • See Before you say no for leaders to learn more.  

Additional resources

Future Working: The Rise of European Independent Professionals. This report explores who independent professionals are and the environments in which they work, why they choose to work independently and what factors encourage and what factors hinder their success.

Prevent burnout. Strategies to help identify risks and prevent burnout for yourself.

VIA Institute on Character. The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a simple self-assessment that takes less than 15 minutes and provides a wealth of information to help you understand your core characteristics.

Work-life balance tips. Balancing your work and personal life can be challenging and stressful at times. These tips and strategies can help.

Contributors include.articlesAnn MorganDavid BarnesHayley PeekJalynn BosleyJenise LeeJenn PorrittKeri AlletsonKerri BrockKim SunderlandLesley GreigLeslie BennettLoretta BrillLouisa JewellMackenzie GilmoreMandi Luis-BucknerMaureen McKennaRilla ClarkSajel BellonSarah JennerSarah Smith

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