Owning your own business is a dream job for someone living with chronic illness. You can set your own flexible hours and even work from home (possibly in your PJs). Years ago, I stopped looking for work in human rights policy development and started my own small business as a creative entrepreneur—a fancy way of saying independent author and freelance writer—and over the years it has developed into a great career for me and my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Before I started my business, my ability to work was measured in less-than-60-minute increments and the only person who was willing to tolerate such a low level of dedication to the task was, well, me. I had the passion, the skills, and the desire to work, but I couldn't follow through after a catastrophic flare had taken every part of my life. Looking back, going out on my own remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But that’s not the whole story. The journey was filled with obstacles, sidetracks, dead ends, and one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever encountered. This is what I’ve learned.
Let Your Body Guide Your Business Plan
When your dreams are big and every business guide you read is based on the average able-bodied person, you end up hitting the wall of your RA-imposed limits quite often. I know that my business would grow much faster if I released a book or two every year (say), but although the spirit is willing, my body simply can’t work at that pace.
Your physical health is the foundation for your success and you ignore it at your peril. Creating stretch goals that are perhaps not entirely attainable will channel your ambition, but it must be paired with flexibility and kindness towards your physical ability. Add your physical health to items for regular check-in just as you would any other part of your business, such as suppliers, client maintenance, and tech updates. If you’re flaring, have a lot of medical appointments, or get “regular-people sick” (that cold or flu going around) for three weeks, adjust your goals. You may not build your business as quickly as others, but you’ll be able to work at a steady pace.
Outsource When You Can
Being an entrepreneur is a perfect opportunity to develop in-depth expertise in one field, with additional expertise in many other fields. For instance, I am primarily a writer, but have also had to learn marketing, accounting, and design. As an entrepreneur, you are in charge of everything and let’s face it, that’s fun for those of us who are control freaks. It is also one of the biggest challenges of running your own business exactly because you’re in charge of every single task. Overwhelming? That barely touches the surface.
Know when not to add another skill to your resume. It’s an important part of the stress management you need to do to keep your RA from flaring. At tax time, hire an accountant with expertise in your particular field to save money (and sanity), or find a virtual assistant for routine or admin tasks to save energy for other to-dos.
Make professional development a part of your business plan, even if it’s tempting to skip this bit due to budget or energy. Regular training will help you learn those supplemental and complementary skills you need to do (almost) it all, and it teaches you how to work smarter instead of harder (cue deep sigh of relief from your RA body).
If you are not in a profession that requires taking specific courses to maintain your designation, you have a lot of options for learning. YouTube is a great place to find videos about everything, including the skills you’re looking for. If you want to take a course, you may be able to find a relatively inexpensive one on platforms like Skillshare or Teachable.
Automate Whenever Possible
Whatever you need to do, there’s probably an app or program to automate tasks related to your business. Use them. Even if there is a small fee, the savings in your most valuable commodities—time and energy—will be worth it. It can be as simple as setting up deadline reminders in your Google calendar, managing social media in a centralized app like Sendible, Hootsuite, or AgoraPulse, or using an app for generating invoices such as QuickBooks.
Set Firm Boundaries Between Work and Home
Working from home is amazing when you have a chronic illness—it gives you the ultimate flexibility in when you work, how you work, and how you dress (I am wearing PJs as I write this). But when you work from home, you are always at work. When you can work at any time, you may end up working all the time—I’m fond of saying that I work for myself and my boss is a b****. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to set firm boundaries around work time, family time, and you time. For me, that means actually scheduling self-care, such as my daily nap, and setting a firm time to quit for the day.
Being an entrepreneur is a wonderful way to work when you have a chronic illness and it can be adjusted to fit around fatigue, pain, and other RA shenanigans. Your business can be small enough to supplement your income or disability payments, it can grow to an empire, or be somewhere in between. You have total control over how far you push the dream in any given day. It’s an exciting place to be.