Most of the world encourages you to follow the dictates of others. In school, you receive assignments and a due date. At that first professional job, your employer sets your work hours and goals. Most corporate hierarchies have rules outlining what it takes to advance, which makes employees easier to manage.
All of these strictures and preset paths create habits—often ones that we aren’t entirely conscious of. It’s only later, once you decide to work for yourself, that those patterns of behavior start to make themselves felt. And for many, they’re really hard to shake.
You might not realize how hard at first. You create a business name, find a place to work, design business cards, a website, and a spiffy Instagram account. You feel like a business owner. It’s easy to think the transition is complete. Then you realize that you’ve gotten better at simply completing tasks assigned to you than many of the other skills self-employment demands.
You discover that working for a company hasn’t prepared you very well for working for yourself. The reward structures are vastly different. Companies tend to discourage the type of continuous risk taking that working for yourself requires. As an employee, you’re given projects. But now that you’re responsible for your income, playing Candy Crush while waiting for work is dangerous.
Maybe you dreamed of having this much freedom, but now you don’t know what to do with it. Decision fatigue takes hold as you make choice after choice in this unfamiliar terrain. You’re working longer hours, have little direction, and don’t know how to regain control. While your title may indicate that you’re the boss, you’re still thinking like an employee. Your name on the door and the freedom to work whenever you want aren’t all it takes—to truly be your own boss, you also have to shift your mind-set.
Here are three signs that it’s time to adjust your perspective, even after you’ve made the leap to independent work—and what to do next.
Most independents rely heavily on their former companies and friends for first clients, often taking whatever’s offered to them. Rather than set the boundaries themselves, many first-time independent workers default to whatever the prospect offers.
This approach might help you reach your income goals faster for a while, which may seem like a top priority. If you’re not careful, though, you’ll be at the mercy of clients’ whims, acting more like a beholden laborer than a boss. The more you allow yourself to be treated that way, the more your clients will do so. It’s not just new independents who find it hard to escape this employee mind-set, after all; many stay stuck long after leaving that steady paycheck behind.
Jim Gay, the owner of the app design firm Saturn Flyer, fell into this trap. After three years on his own, he still didn’t have well-articulated services or a sales strategy. He took whatever work his network threw his way. Before he left his job, Gay was a senior software developer. Now, despite being his own boss, he was treated by clients as just another pair of hands on the keyboard, another member of the team doing assigned work.
While Gay made more money, the client set his schedule, which meant a two-hour round-trip commute to an office. Gone were those extra hours with his children he’d wanted when he went independent. But once he shifted to thinking like a boss, Gay took control of his work, creating well-defined services and only taking projects where he set the terms.
If you have little say in or are just unhappy with the parameters of your projects, you’re still thinking like an employee.
At your job, your role (ideally, anyway) is to accomplish a clearly defined set of tasks according to equally clear specifications. Your work is deemed successful if you performed adequately, and as long as you do that, there’s likely someone else to blame if a project fails. This structure often encourages you to be reactive rather than proactive.
As a business owner, though, you’re responsible for the outcome and overall success of every project. The most successful self-employed people let go of justifications, instead acting in the best interests of their client—even if that means tough conversations. Taking responsibility makes you more trustworthy, and people repeatedly hire independents they trust and fire those they don’t.
If you find your emails to clients are laden with excuses, chances are you’re still thinking like a worker, not a business owner.
Employees work the hours expected of them. As an independent, your job is to solve your client’s problems—whether that’s increasing customer retention through new software features or introducing a new product using a content strategy. If you’re just punching a clock, you can’t consistently deliver value to your client.
A friend recently confessed that when he was independent, he viewed the hours he worked as valuable enough on their own. Now, as the CTO of a company, he appreciates the consultants who focus on offering value rather than just logging hours. Being hourly-based in your thinking is a sure sign you’re still thinking like an employee.
When you set the terms, you have more control over your deliverables. When you’re proactive, you build longer-term relationships and a steady pipeline. When you focus on value, you think about your client’s outcome, not just whether you made a good hourly rate. Changing your mind-set to think like a business owner makes you cherished. Your new attitude all but guarantees that you’ll have clients who rave about your work, keep you around longer, and recommend you to others.