Monday, June 27, 2011

3 Tips to Survive a Work Life without Structure

There's something to be said for a day-to-day life that's structured and predictable. You know, something like get up at 6, be in the office by 8:30, home for dinner by 5:30 p.m. Then, lights out at 10. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For much of the last 15 years, that's the way things have gone for me, ever since I left the daily newspaper biz. The timing for a change was right since my two kids were young and hadn't entered first grade yet.

Of course, that's not for everybody. Maybe you don't have kids, or you like the thrill or challenge of something new every day. It can be exciting. It's even better if you engage in a lot of knowledge work at home through your computer. You can set your own schedule, working when you want (if you're not trying to meet a deadline), and catching a little daytime TV from your living room.

If your work life consists of cobbling together an income from different sources, it also means you must be effective at selling yourself to prospective clients, which is easy if you can articulate the value you can offer, and you have work samples or references who can back you up. You also need the persistence and courage to endure lean times when there won't be enough work, because your earnings will likely be inconsistent from week to week. So, it takes personal and financial discipline as well.

Workers in their 20s who have yet to land full-time gigs may know what I'm talking about. Some who recently graduated from college are cobbling an income from different sources. And they can afford to since they don't have family responsibilities. I took that approach for about 18 months when I was in my 20s. There were days in which I would leave the house at 7 a.m. and not return until close to midnight. (This was before the Internet made it easier to work remotely rather than be physically present to do your work.)

As we trudge through a slowly recovering economy, there are many of these people who are working such unstructured schedules or merely among the "underemployed" - working less than 40 hours a week because they can't find full-time work. If you're among them while you look for something permanent, take these three bits of advice:

Save more of what you earn. If you're not earning a lot, this will be hard. But sock away as much as possible in a "rainy day" fund so you'll have some money for those leaner weeks or months when you're not doing enough because few need your help.

Cultivate and work your network. Face-to-face networking is the best, but LinkedIn and Facebook also provide great platforms to connect with people who may be able to help you find stuff to do. Just be ready to help them first. The best payoffs in networking come when everyone helps each other. If you're not thinking of networking as a two-way street, you shouldn't be networking. Give a lot to get even a little.

Don't forget health insurance. You may be in excellent health, but find coverage that can be there for you in case of an accident or sudden illness, as well as any prescriptions you may need. Even if you have to pay out of pocket for an annual checkup, you need to protect yourself against the potential financial catastrophe that can befall someone who's uninsured.

Do you have an "unstructured" work life? How do you make it work?

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