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PRODUCTIVITY

6 Ways to Combat Loneliness When You're Starting Up

For a lot of founders, the early days of starting a business are lonely days. Sound familiar? Try these tricks for powering through it.
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My day always starts with coffee. For anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads my personal blog, you know this already. By 10 a.m., I'm back for a third or fourth cup. It's my fuel for writing, but it's also my chance to leave the comfort of my performance chair, shake out a few of the cobwebs in my head, and enjoy the light of day.

See, for the past 12 years as a freelancer, I've worked alone. Not to make this too depressing, but it's a rather lonely existence.

Maybe you can relate. I know plenty of tech entrepreneurs who got started by coding alone--for hours on end--in their own homes. The trends would suggest that many of your employees are also working alone part of the week, as telecommuting is on the rise. Faster broadband speeds, innovative videoconferencing systems, and a desire to save the planet by driving less are big contributors. And there's the fact that most of us are just more productive working solo.

Or are we? Silence is a breeding ground for introspection. Without social interactions throughout the day, there's a risk of becoming slightly myopic and interpersonally stunted.

Fortunately, there are a few tricks to make sure this isolation doesn't get the best of you.

1. Change your scenery.

Although it's been somewhat discredited, the book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer explained how a change of location can spur imagination. I firmly believe this. So, I work at least a day per week in a downtown coffee shop. I've also been known to have two offices, commuting between them. Driving gets me outside, moving, and part of the working population.

2. Develop accountability partners. 

Ever since the beginning, when I dropped out of the corporate world and stuck out on my own, I've relied on accountability partners. A friend who runs an insurance agency probably knows more about my job than anyone. He is known to drop by unannounced at my office, usually asking for thumbdrives. My wife is my go-to during the day to help me discuss conflicts that come up and to de-brief from a big assignment.

About four or five friends know I tend to work constantly. And they know when to bug me--e.g., right after a flurry of Twitter posts. I meet with one friend every week to clear my head for a few hours and pull me out of my own world.

3. Banish the silence.

OK, this trick is rather unique to my situation: I'm also a music reviewer. I've covered European punk-grass and teen screamo bands, gone to rock festivals, and interviewed 50 Cent in person (one of my most memorable experiences as a writer). So there's always something playing in my office. The lesson: Hearing sounds and voices is a way to block out the fact that absolutely no one is around. Try it.

4. Stay out of the vortex of random website clicks.

Admit it--it happens to you, too. To combat this near-addiction, I've started using tools like 20 Cubed that pops up a reminder every 20 minutes to take a break for 20 seconds. It's incredibly annoying--and highly effective.

5. Use social tools to be, well, social.

I'm not sure what I would do without Rapportive. For every email that arrives, I see a picture of the sender along with their social networking links, a summary of what they do, and even a quick list of recent chats. This is particularly helpful with my editors. I'm reminded there is a real person out there in the netherworld.

And, I rely heavily on social networks. A few colleagues make fun of me about my constant activity--posting quick jokes, linking to articles, jabbering with PR folks. It's amazingly helpful. The non-social part of my job can be depressing, but Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Pinterest all help me see there are people out there to engage.

Another trick: Pick up the phone, the original social networking tool. Making live phone calls helps because, according to an MIT professor Sherry Turkle, texting and email leaves out a feedback loop in communication.

6. Drop whatever it is you're doing.

Of all the methods I use, there is one that seems to work the best. I take a pause. This is something I've learned over the past few years. In some cases, it's a time of reflection: why am I writing about this topic, who am I trying to reach, what is the purpose of this task? Other times, I walk outside and find a living person or drive to Walmart and buy a salad.

I don't think there is a way to completely banish loneliness when you work alone--but walking, moving, pausing for reflection are all great antidotes.

Last updated: Aug 23, 2013

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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