The Advantages of Working Independently, Online

MacBook Air and iced tea

Several friends have asked me what it’s like working independently, online. So this post will be about my work life. I thought it might be fun to do it in the form of questions and answers.

What is your work?

I create online courses for librarians and educators about mobile apps. I focus on the creative ways that apps can be used for learning and content creation, since mobile computing and “natural user interfaces” are turning out to be a great way to enable lifelong learning and creativity for people of all ages and abilities.

I offer my courses through the continuing education programs of Simmons Graduate School of Library & Information Science, and the American Library Association. I also offer self-study versions of those same courses on

In addition, I’m working on two books about apps (one self-published and one traditionally published). Sometimes I speak at conferences or offer workshops, but mostly I create products and services that are offered only online – which means I can work from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Why did you choose this type of work?

I like this work because I believe that education is one of the best ways to make the world a better place.

I’ve always had a techie bent, and I enjoy learning new technologies, then explaining them in ways that save people time and show them the potential for their creative work. I also enjoy going through loads of material (articles, books, apps) to find the very best resources to recommend to busy professionals.

I focus on librarians because I was one for many years (first as a music librarian, then in nonprofit, corporate, and academic libraries), so I have connections to that audience and much love for the world of libraries.

Why do librarians need to learn about mobile apps?

Libraries have always been about helping people find information for use in their lives, and not just as storehouses for books. Libraries are changing with the times, as they always have.

R. David Lankes offers this statement about librarians – and it’s one of my favorite mission statements:

The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

These days libraries are:

  • including virtual collections with their physical collections,
  • transforming their facilities into places for content creation – not just consumption,
  • offering training about new technologies,
  • and serving as key partners in community relations.

For a useful summary of what’s happening, see “The Changing Landscape for Libraries & Librarians in the Digital Age.”

Mobile apps fit right into this, since they are tools for knowledge creation.

What’s your typical daily routine?

One thing I like is that there is no typical day. However, I do like having routines – they make it easy to be productive and provide a framework for my work that I don’t have to think about.

My work changes each month, depending on which courses I’m currently teaching and which new books or courses I’m developing. I sometimes take a few days off between projects to focus on having fun, and I’ve been known to take a whole month off (like when I first moved to Mexico last year).

During work weeks, here’s my typical routine:

Early morning:

– Read technology news and email on my iPhone and set up tweets for the day in the Buffer app. (I tweet about libraries, mobile, ebooks, technology trends, etc., and have a following of mostly librarians & educators).

– Have breakfast (a green smoothie every day!), listen to streaming radio using the TuneIn Radio Pro app, and exercise.

green smoothie

– Walk to a local coffee shop, library, or co-working space to work on projects with my MacBook Air.

– Go home for lunch (a big salad).

– Walk to a different coffee shop or similar space to work on projects with my MacBook Air.

Early evening:
– Go home for an early dinner (vegetarian).

After dinner:

– Sometimes I have a meeting on Skype with one of my collaborators or co-authors. And when one of my online classes is in session, I have a live (text-based) chat with some of the students in my courses once a week.

– Chat with friends online via Facebook or Skype, watch a favorite TV show on my MacBook Air (Netflix, or similar), go for a walk, and every once in a while go out to a movie.

– Research places to live or visit in the future, make travel plans, research technologies I have questions about, read blogs and websites that inspire my work habits, skim Facebook and post some updates, organize my photos, browse Instagram and add some photos, draft blogs posts, etc.

Of course all of that is subject to change, but that’s the general framework and I enjoy it.

Do you miss the community of co-workers that you had while working as an employee?

I miss specific people, but I don’t feel this work is solitary. I still have a community of people to collaborate with. The difference is that I can choose who to collaborate with on each project and the collaboration ends when the project ends. I can also choose when to work alone. I have many friends and colleagues to get feedback from, and to discuss ideas with. Two of my projects involve collaboration with former co-workers. Sometimes I hire someone to work with (such as a copy-editor for one of my books). All of this happens online, mainly with Skype (sometimes using screen-sharing). So I still have a sense of community with a variety of talented and fun people.

How do you balance daily work with long-term strategy?

One of the things that’s challenging is figuring out how much time to spend planning and strategizing vs. time spent creating (writing, making videos, putting courses together, marketing, etc).

This year, since I had some strict deadlines related to my book projects, I decided to focus on daily creative output for all of January and February, and wait until late March to set aside time to look at the big picture.

To help with that, I’ve signed up for an event called Pioneer Nation, in Portland, Oregon in late March. It’s an event for independent entrepreneurs, designed to help us increase income and create sustainability for our businesses. I’m looking forward to meeting others who are working in a similar way, participating in hands-on workshops, and getting inspired by other successful independent entrepreneurs.

Pioneer Nation

In early April I’ll take at least a week to focus on my own business strategy for the coming year. I don’t have all the answers about how to balance my time, but I know I need to spend some time on a regular basis, looking at the big picture.

How does your work life now compare with your work life as an employee?

When I worked for an employer, a lot of time was spent attending meetings, serving on committees, filling out paperwork, reading email, communicating with co-workers about everything, and other similar tasks. Less time was spent creating useful products and services – and that’s the part of the work I enjoy most. I was a web manager and usability specialist for the MIT Libraries for over a decade and then was promoted to head of our new user experience department for the last two years I was there. Both kinds of work were enjoyable, but being a department head meant less hands-on creation work and more managing people.

Now that I’m working independently, the majority of my time is spent on creating useful products and services (online courses, books, a web software app called Feedwelder, and in the future I’d like to create some in-person events or small conferences).

I’ve always preferred the hands on technology and creation work and now I can focus on that.

How do you balance work with play and relaxation?

One of the main reasons I wanted to leave my full-time job and work independently was to have more time for play and relaxation. I’ve always enjoyed my work (both for an employer and independently), but found it hard to carve out enough time for other things I care about. I think our work culture in the U.S. is focused too much on working long hours – I don’t think that’s healthy.

Now that I’m independent, I can combine work and play in flexible ways that I enjoy. For example, I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for five months last year. When I arrived in the beginning of May, I decided to take the whole month off to explore my surroundings, learn my way around, practice my Spanish, and do tourist-y things. That was a nice way to start life in a new country, rather than trying to work at the same time.

From June – September I mostly worked (according to the routine above), but also took a few days off here and there to go on tours, side trips, explore museums, etc. It was great not having to cram in all the tourist activities into a week or two, as I would have done if I was “on vacation.” I could just live my life and when I felt like it, take a day or part of a day off to explore. I took a whole week off when a friend from Boston came to visit me, and enjoyed seeing the sites with her.

Me and my friend, Evelyn in Oaxaca
At Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico
Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico.

I love having this flexibility — both the daily rhythms and the monthly/yearly rhythms.

Are you a consultant?

Many people have assumed that if you’re freelance, that you’re hiring out your time to consult on projects, or provide services (such as web design) to people and organizations.

I’m not doing that because that would still mean selling my time and might take even more time that when I was working for an employer. Selling your time is limited by the number of hours in a day, and you still have to find work – it’s not automatic, like a salaried job.

Instead, I’m creating products and services that can leverage my time and bring in money after I’m done creating them. That’s why I put self-study versions of my online courses on I’m taking work that I already did to create the courses I offer through Simmons or ALA and offering them to those who prefer to work without deadlines on their own schedule.

Apps for Librarians on
Self-study version of my course on

This brings in regular monthly income while I’m creating the next product, or taking a month off to have fun.

I’m so happy that it’s easier than ever before to create online information products and sell them online. It makes for an enjoyable working life with more balance. I’m lucky that the kind of work I do lends itself to creating products (courses and books). And nowadays, many types of work can be turned into online courses – I’ve seen people having success selling courses and books about yoga, photography, cooking, and more.

Why do you work in coffee shops so often?

People working in a coffee shop.
Chango – my favorite coffee shop in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

I enjoy being able to work from home, but I like even better working in coffee shops! For some reason, being around others who are working (there are usually lots of other people with laptops), and hearing the quiet, steady background noise of conversation and coffee cups, really helps me focus.

I enjoy being in different locations in the morning vs. afternoon, and walking in the neighborhood to get there. I love good tea, and it’s nice to find places that offer good kinds of tea to drink (iced or hot, with no sugar – that’s my favorite).

Since many people find that gentle background noise helps with concentration, there are some apps coming out that provide this. I think this is interesting! I haven’t tried these two apps yet, (because I use real coffee shop noise and Pandora for listening to music), but I’m curious about them.

  • Coffitivity: App that plays sounds you would hear in a coffee shop!
  • Focus @ Will: App that plays music designed to help you focus.

What kind of laptop do you use?

My MacBook Air
10-hour battery life!

I recently upgraded my MacBook Air from the 11-inch to the 13-inch model for two reasons: 1) it’s nice to have a slightly bigger screen, since I don’t usually work with an external monitor (I miss those large screens, though!), and 2) the new one has 10-hour battery life! This is great. It means I never bother to bring the power cord with me and I don’t need to sit near an outlet. It lasts all day. I LOVE that!

What is some of the best advice you’ve read that has influenced your work habits?

I constantly read tips and advice online about work and productivity. The advice that has helped me the most is this: work regularly in small chunks, every day.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks facing me, this helps. Just focus on the day and get a certain amount of work done.

Here’s an quote that inspired me from “Accomplish Any Goal by Doing Something Small, Every Day.”
“Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.”

Do you find yourself working all the time?

No – I love my work, but I also love play! I’m currently reading this book: Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.

He explains why play is so important and encourages adults to make playing around a priority (it’s not just for kids). I love that idea and since I tend to work a lot (enjoying my work), I like being reminded to make play a priority.

Here’s an idea that I love:
Why You Should Stop Working at Noon Every Day
It’s so true that work expands to fill the time, and if you get organized and have a shorter window to fit your tasks into, it can be very motivating to know that you’ve got the afternoon to go out and have fun, enjoy nature, play and get exercise. I haven’t quite reached the noon deadline, but it’s something I aspire to!

What are your favorite apps that help you work & play?

Since I’m really into apps, I use MANY different ones every day. I’m working on a future post that focuses on all the apps I use and what I use them for.

But just for a start, here are a few that I particularly like:

I store everything in this notes app: travel plans, receipts, links to articles I want to read, apps I want to try, and I use it keep a daily work log where I track my time. A great feature is that you can email things to a private address and they will appear in your Evernote. The desktop and mobile apps synchronize, so you always have your notes with you.

Evernote for iPhone

I use this app to make to-do lists and check off items as I do them. I use it for both work and home tasks (this app makes that easy by sorting into “contexts”).


Abstract puzzle apps
When my brain needs a rest and I just want to relax, I play one of these games on my iPhone for a few minutes. I like abstract puzzle games the best, for some reason. All three of these games have beautiful colors, shapes, and sound effects that I enjoy.

  • Flow Free
    Flow Free
    Connect dots, fill the board, cute water droplet sounds.
  • Dots
    Connect the dots into lines or shapes. Very nice sound effects.
  • LYNE
    Slow, meditative game. Take your time finding a solution.

How would you summarize the advantages of working online, independently?

Here are the biggest advantages for me:

  • I can control my own schedule, optimizing my daily, weekly, and monthly work/play cycles.
  • I spend more time on the kinds of work I enjoy most (content creation).
  • I can live anywhere and move anytime, combining travel with work.
  • I have more time to make relaxation, play, and social life a priority.
  • I get direct feedback from students who take my courses, showing the value of my work. (Somehow I see the impact more than when I was working for an employer, though I’m sure that work had a positive impact, too).

So if you’re thinking about working for yourself online, I highly recommend it!

3 thoughts on “The Advantages of Working Independently, Online

  1. marionleedscarroll

    Oh, Nicole… as you know, working independently, flex-time, from home is the only life for me! Even though I’m now on SSDI + another disability program, I’m still searching for a telecommuting job those two programs will let me take on… I *will* telecommute to work!

  2. Pingback: Work online, live anywhere | A Location-Flexible Life

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