Maybe it’s the commute. Maybe you want more control of your time. Maybe you don’t like answering to a boss. The daily grind can get anyone down, and plenty of people fantasize about becoming a freelancer or working for themselves someday.
We’ve seen a marked shift in societal attitudes toward working. Long gone are the days of your grandparents, when one job might be held for forty years. And fading still are the days of our parents, when entrepreneurship was really just beginning to take foot as a dream. The oft-cited statistic from software company Intuit says that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be of the self-employed variety by 2020. As that date rapidly approaches, experts are split: Some say we won’t hit the mark; others say we’ll far exceed it. At any rate, if you’re a Millennial, chances are high you want to be part of that 40 percent. Studies show that young adults today prefer a flexible schedule, work that aligns with their values, and autonomy—all things that can be achieved by working for yourself.
But there’s a big gap between wanting to run your own show and doing so successfully. If you want to work for yourself someday, here’s what to do with your time now, while you currently have a job, to make that happen in the future. I’ve put these to use in my own life, and I’ve also seen these practices at work as I’ve studied the time management of hundreds of people for my books, such as I Know How She Does It—How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.
01. Think strategically about your skills.
Many soloists serve very specific niches. If you know exactly what you’d do, great, but for many people, this is less clear. I love writing about all kinds of things. It took me a long time to figure out that time management might best fit the intersecting circles of topics that interested me and that other people might be willing to pay for. List everything you might be good at or interested in, and think about how you can combine these skills. Anne Guarnera, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in Spanish when she decided to go work for herself, says, “I think it is essential to not only consider the skills that you are exercising in your current position—for me, that was my Spanish ability and language teaching—but also those skills that you developed in past positions, even if you’re not using them currently.” She had worked in public relations and social media in the past, so those went on the list too as she was figuring out what might work.
02. Do some market research.
If you surf the internet from time to time, you may as well do so with a purpose. What services do people with your skills provide? Join Facebook groups related to your areas of interest to see what people use and need.
Once you’ve got a long list of your skills and existing needs, brainstorm potential ways you might make money combining these. Guarnera reports that “finding the right fit took a few tries.” For instance, she considered adjunct teaching and starting a tutoring business, but eventually she landed on starting a company called Language Learning at Home that helps homeschooling families teach their children foreign languages. “In the end, I think that my current business is the perfect representation of my strengths and values,” she says. The good news is that with the ability to sell many services online, you can try different tactics as side hustles while you’re still employed. Unless your employer specifically forbids it, you can devote a few night and weekend hours per week to trying different options. If one draws a lot more interest than the others, you’ll have your answer of the best course to pursue. Of course, finding time for side hustles isn’t easy, which brings us to the next thing to do while you’re still employed . . .
04. Master personal productivity.
The harsh truth about self-employment is that being the boss of yourself can be tougher than managing anyone else. So you may as well practice the skills of personal productivity when you’re still collecting a paycheck. Figure out when you work best. Figure out how long tasks take. Figure out what you do well and what you’ll need help with. Doing your side hustles on nights and weekends will help you figure out how to work while you’re around temptations (TV, housework, etc.).
05. Build your network.
Melanie Nelson, who runs the Beyond Managing blog and has worked in biotech and for herself, says, “Your network is your most likely source of clients, particularly before you have a track record as a contractor.” If your organization is willing to send you to conferences, go and think broadly about who you’d like to meet. Get to know people in other departments in your own organization. Join professional networking groups and organizations in your community. Someone you volunteer with at a local food bank might know someone who’s looking for skills like yours. Set a goal to reach out to one new person per day, or at least reach out to someone you’ve met in the past to renew ties.
06. Build your brand.
When you work for someone else, you’re part of their brand. When you work for yourself, you’ll need to establish your personal brand. If your employer doesn’t forbid it, you can start doing this now by setting up a website with your name and interests. Nelson suggests, “Consider writing about topics related to your most marketable skills, either on a blog or on a platform like Medium or LinkedIn.”
07. Create a cushion.
Few people immediately match their full-time employee income when they go out on their own. Ideally, you’ll surpass it in time, but you need to have savings to cover the gap. It’s not just about making sure you can pay your rent. It’s also about giving you mental space. “Having savings to help cover expenses until you can build your income back up will give you time to grow the type of business you want to run rather than just chasing every conceivable contract,” Nelson says. Make sure you save enough to cover benefits you might have gotten as an employee, too (particularly health insurance).
08. Create a timeline.
Some people continue with their side hustles indefinitely, but if you’d like to work for yourself full time, it can help to create a deadline. Knowing that you plan to quit your 9-to-5 in two years can motivate you to put cash away and network when it would be easier not to. You know the end is in sight, and you’re doing all you can to get there.