How to stay sane when you work solo

A conversation between Heidi Sundin and Emma Petroulas

Last year I started consulting independently, and yes I love it!  I am able to work with great clients on interesting projects, focus on delivering quality outcomes, and have the desired level of workspace flexibility. I get a kick out of helping people and seeing their businesses succeed – it’s what drives me – so it barely feels like work at all. But the independent path would not have lightness without a shadow to provide some contrast and a new set of ‘learning experiences’.

I love collaborating with people and most of the organisations that I’ve worked for in the past have had teams and specialists whose expertise I could draw on as needed. Working solo changes that readily available on-hand pool of knowledge and talent to be able to test ideas with. In addition, finding the right balance between building the business and delivering projects requires a different level of discipline, patience and calmness. The level of uncertainty is heightened when you have a small business – and further development of the agility skill set is required.

I know I’m not alone in these start-up and independent consulting experiences – so I thought I’d share a few things to think about in solving some of the challenges we tend to experience in setting things up and working largely solo. For instance, I have more or less established my own virtual team – trusted friends and colleagues who I team up with for advice, collaboration, and specialist skills to draw on and bring to my clients as required. They are fellow consultants and small business owners who share and solve similar issues.

One of those amazing people in my virtual team is Emma Petroulas, co-founder & coo at itchy baby co.

‘I have an online retail business, and spend half the week working in our warehouse with production and dispatch happening during these times, and the other half of the week working from home. When I’m in our warehouse with the team around me, there can be a buzz from orders going out and supplies coming in, however whilst I love my ‘home days’ with no distractions, it can end up being quite lonely’.

After building two successful online businesses, Emma has built up a wealth of experience in staying sane while working solo which she shared with me – and I’d like to share with you. Her candour is insightful and generous – making her advice even more helpful.

Here are Emma’s top tips:

#1: Spend $3 on that morning coffee

I know everyone always says to exercise in the morning because it clears the head, but it’s just not me. I keep active by walking just about everywhere, but you’ll never see me at a gym in the morning. I find it really hard to wake up in the morning and get straight into demanding physical exercise, but I also find I can’t wake up and start working straight away without leaving the house first. So, walking to the shops and picking up my morning coffee helps put me in the right frame of mind to start my day.

#2: Wear comfortable clothes but don’t stay in trackies all day

When I started my very first small business at the age of 26, I would spend the day in tracksuit pants and a hoodie. However I found that dressing in trackies made me develop a bit of a lazy attitude. It’s important to be comfortable but still be in a work frame of mind. Even though some days working from home I might not see anyone, I still put on a good pair of jeans and pop on some lip gloss.

#3: Try (as hard as you can) to not let your business become your life and your life become your business

I made this mistake with my very first business. I’m one of those people that can become so focused on work that I find it hard to separate work from anything else in my life. I can start working in the morning and stay completely focused until late into the night when I’m trying to get through a task list or solve a problem. I learnt the lesson the hard way with my first business, as it led to a lot of breakdown in friendships and relationships because I didn’t make time for them or prioritise them, and I often found that all my thoughts were consumed entirely by my business. I’ve now learnt how important it is to try and separate business from the rest of my life, and make sure that you still make time for friends and family because they’re actually a lot more important than your business and anything else in your life.

#4: Have a routine and schedule in social events

Start your day by writing a list of tasks which need to get done during the day and when you are going to do them. As part of this, make sure you make time for having fun. Working very independently can get quite lonely, so it is important to schedule in social events with friends and family so you can keep sane. Most of my weeknights are generally filled with catch-ups with friends. Dinners out each night can often be expensive (especially in Sydney), so it doesn’t always need to be a catch up which costs money. I live close to the beach so often my friends will come past after work and we’ll walk to the beach for a swim and chat before everyone parts ways for the night.

#5: Find other small business owners to engage with

Quite a lot of my friends run their own startups and small businesses and I find it really helps chatting to them about their business – it can often help you realise that you’re not navigating the business maze alone, and you can often help each other out with business problems and scenarios.

#6: Check in with your business partner/ co-founder daily (if you have one)

I check-in with my co-founder and CEO multiple times during the day, either by phone or mainly by chat apps like google hangouts. Just getting an update on what she’s working on and running through what I’ve been doing can really help keep us both focused and accountable.   

And mine…

Similar to Emma I have started to build my own weekly routine – which combines a fairly disciplined approach to delivering for my clients, managing my own business, and investing in professional development and personal wellbeing. I generally do start the day with a long walk (and a double shot of coffee) which I use for reflections or to get inspired by listening to podcasts,  audible books, and music, and sometimes I walk and try to be really observant of what’s going on in the city (this is something I never did when I was ‘busy’ running from one thing to another). This is valuable time for thinking, processing and mulling over a client’s challenge or how to approach a situation.

I commit to reading something new every day (an article, an insight, a book). One of the benefits of organised workplaces is often internal commitments to professional development and industry insights. Working solo can sometimes mean you’re out of that world of constant stimulation coming from the workplace. So create it for yourself – interesting newsletters, blogs, free sites, industry trends or check out different podcasts or Audible if reading is not your thing.

Know thyself is one of the biggest lessons – I know I need time alone when I’m writing, creating, and planning; and I know I need to be with people when I’m trying to solve problems or push an idea to the next level. So I strike the balance between working from home or private spaces and working at client sites or in co-working offices. Having a strong network of trusted colleagues (even if is not within the traditional organisational boundaries) is essential.

We figured out why entrepreneurs wear jeans and a t-shirt – you do your best work when you’re comfortable – just leave the trackies behind!

About the authors

Heidi Sundin is a management consultant working with businesses to drive growth. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans creating transformational programs and change across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors.

Emma Petroulas  has co-founded two online businesses, one which she successfully sold after two years in operation. Prior to that, she spent 8 years working in strategy, finance and also as a university lecturer.

One thought on “How to stay sane when you work solo”

  1. Hi Heidi, Great tips for private consultants, I agree building a team of trusted collaborators is important – and so is having a sounding board – or two! . Have you seen “flying solo?” An online community of sole traders…


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