How to Work: The Most Important Self-Reliance Skill Ever

Practical how-to knowledge may not be the most critical expertise you need to reach your self-sufficiency dreams. Learn how to work efficiently with this article’s six basic self-reliance skills to make your dreams into reality.

Steve Maxwell Home

The author's family hand-built this handsome stone-and-timber home on their rural Ontario acreage. Knowing how to work, as well as having house-building know-how, was integral to completing the construction process.

Photo by Steve Maxwell

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In October of 1986, I cut through a tumbledown wire fence and drove my old pickup truck onto the rural property I’d just bought with my life savings. I was a 23-year-old dreamer back then, with a desire to live in the country by the labor of my own hands. I’m now living that dream and thriving on that same property along with my wife, Mary, and our five kids. We built our own house, and we enjoy food, fuel and beauty from our land. We’re now blessed to see a second generation setting up a homestead of their own, and putting their self-reliance skills to use, on our family acreage.

Few other dreamers I’ve known have managed to fulfill their ambitions. In my experience, most dreams don’t die because of a lack of practical homesteading skills or passion, but rather become casualties of the failure of knowing to work efficiently to get enough of the right kind of work done. Bills pile up, gardens don’t get planted, roofs continue to leak, enthusiasm wanes. The cause of these problems often goes unrecognized until passion is cold, relationships frazzled and finances exhausted. Knowing how to work efficiently on a homestead where you are your own boss requires a specific skill set that contrasts sharply with the skills needed to work a traditional office job. I’ve worked for wages and now I work from home on my own land, and the two experiences are entirely different. If your goal is to be in charge of your own successful modern homestead, you must learn how to work, which is just as important as learning practical skills. Put into practice the following six homesteading habits to help you get the right work done in the right way, and you’ll bring the satisfaction of self-reliant living one big step closer.

1. Learning How to Work: Set Guiding Principles

A homesteader without goals is like a ship without a rudder. You may be sailing, but you won’t end up where you want to go. You need to decide at the outset what kind of lifestyle you want. For us, it came down to three main guiding principles: Earn all family income without leaving the property, raise our kids with us at home, and provide for as many of our basic needs as possible from our own land and labor.

Determine your own principles, and let them be the rudder that guides your voyage toward self-sufficiency. Use them to set long-term goals, broken down by year and month — being specific will help you figure out what you need to accomplish each day in order to achieve those goals and live in line with your principles.

2. Learning How to Work: Follow a Disciplined Schedule with Rest

No boss, no outside schedules, no imposed deadlines — these are some of the attractions of working from home, but they’re also likely to contribute to failure. Not having a boss means your success will depend almost entirely on how well you determine what must get done. When setting your own schedule without imposed deadlines, you’ll thrive only if you fill your day with productive activities. Self-reliant living is really about responsibility.

So why bother with self-reliance if it doesn’t get you out of work? The satisfaction of gaining directly from your own efforts is one reason. This connection between productivity and benefit is one of the things I like most about my modern homestead. Plus, completing many of the wide variety of homestead tasks alongside family and friends makes work more like serious play.

Day-to-day living on a successful modern homestead starts with a schedule that includes eight hours of constructive work each day. You’ll probably want to work longer, because your work will be fulfilling. But all work and no play isn’t sustainable either. The older I get, the more I value setting aside a day of rest. We work hard for six days, and then relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors on the seventh day.

3. Learning How to Work: Do the Right Work

Today, we have easy, unprecedented access via the Internet to the information needed to create a thriving homestead lifestyle. You can pick up almost any self-reliance skill imaginable, learn how to work from home, and establish international connections with like-minded folks online, which makes the Internet an invaluable tool for the modern homesteader. You’ll need many more tools, of course, but the Internet is crucial — I’m sure our homestead life would never have succeeded without it.

All that said, even essential how-to information is wasted if it’s not applied to the tasks that matter most. That’s why you must prioritize where you invest your efforts. The best way to do so, I’ve found, is to make — and use! — lists. In the evening, write down everything that needs doing the next day based on your predetermined goals for the following week and month.

Don’t let personal preference for certain jobs delay you from tackling what you know should be high-priority items, and don’t worry about items on the list you aren’t getting to yet. Just be sure you get to them later, after you’ve handled the immediate to-dos.

4. Learning How to Work: Work the Right Way

Having the proper tools to work efficiently will make a huge difference. Doing work in the right way means equipping yourself the way a professional would, not as a hobbyist would. You probably won’t be able to buy professional-grade tools and gear right away, but work toward it.

You can also buy or rent equipment to share with a group, hire your neighbor who owns a tractor to till your garden, barter labor for a side of beef, or trade work for the opportunity to borrow a wood splitter until you can build your own collection of equipment. Aim to become not a jack-of-all-trades, but a well-equipped master of most self-reliance skills. It’s a long-term goal that will set you up for lasting prosperity.

5. Learning How to Work: Carry a Notepad

Pound for pound, my notepad and pen are the most valuable physical tools I own. They’re always with me to catch the little thoughts that waft through my head throughout the day: “Buy 5 pounds of 4-inch deck screws,” “Call Rob about shingle order,” “Take photo of spiders in pasture for blog,” “Harvest garlic.” This habit prevents me from letting tasks that need doing escape my memory, neglecting details, and wasting trips to town by forgetting to buy all the items I need.

Whether you use a smartphone, tablet, or simple paper pad, as I do, recording crucial details that come up during each workday will be vital because it will ultimately boost efficiency.

6. Learning How to Work: Work Efficiently and Avoid Distractions

An old-timer I know tells a story of how things used to be in the countryside where he grew up during the 1930s: “We were dirt-poor, but everyone managed to keep their barns repaired and houses painted. Nowadays, people sit inside watching satellite TV or YouTube while their places fall apart around their ears.”

The most spectacular homesteading failures I’ve seen all involve people who talk a lot and move slowly. While the Internet is an essential homesteading tool, it’s also full of distractions that turn people into spectators and consumers rather than participants and producers. No responsible boss would allow you to watch television, play games or socialize online while you’re on the clock. What you might not realize is that, when working from home, your homestead can actually fire you. When your garden doesn’t get tilled in time and your woodpile is too small come November, the homestead will hand you a pink slip — and it will be at least as shocking as the regular kind. You’re free to indulge in these distractions during the workday, but they could cost you your dreams of a self-reliant, hands-on life. They probably will.

Simply moving quickly as you walk around and perform tasks can significantly add to your productivity. Don’t run about frantically, but rather work efficiently and be deliberate and focused. After picking up the pace becomes a habit, productive work will become the new normal — and you’ll thrive.

Learning the practical nuts and bolts of hands-on living is vital, and just as imperative is mastering the six homesteading habits detailed here, which will keep you working efficiently and effectively. In my experience, how you work will be the most critical part of making your dreams of successful self-reliant living your reality.


A Day in the Life

My day starts at about 7 a.m., when I either work on digital projects or hands-on jobs, such as fixing machinery, tending cattle and fences, or working in the garden. My wife, Mary, is a full-time homemaker. She has lunch ready for the family at noon, and then I go back to work until 6 p.m. Lately, I’ve spent my afternoons cutting and splitting firewood, and helping my son build his own house for him and his wife. The kids handle cleaning up after supper, so Mary and I are free to walk with our dog along a forest trail for a couple of miles. It’s quite a treat to hear whippoorwills sing while a full moon rises through the trees. As I write this article, my to-do list includes putting the garden to bed; completing a promotional video and website for a local marina; helping one of my sons finish a simple, portable chicken coop he’s building; picking some apples for Mary to use for a pie bee that she’s participating in with friends of hers; extending the watering system on our cattle pasture; and working on my websites with my digital assistants, Mike and Kristena, who live 400 miles away.

This is a general pattern of our day-to-day work for six days a week. We don’t work beyond the essential chores on Sundays. The variety of a homestead workweek makes it so much nicer than hourly paid work, at least for me. I look forward to Mondays just as much as I do Fridays, and I’m excited to get out of bed each day. Our carbon footprint is smaller than it would be otherwise, because we don’t travel for work, we heat with wood, and we make, reuse and repair a lot of what we need. This isn’t the life for everyone, but it certainly is for us.


Making Ends Meet: Earn Money at Home

When my wife and I began in the mid-1980s, our plan was to work from home by building furniture and running a pick-your-own berry farm. That began to change when my interest in writing led to my first published article in 1988. Today, I earn most of my income from creating articles, blog posts and videos about woodworking, construction and power tools. I do business from the shop and studio I built on our property. We still grow berries and work with wood, but it’s usually for our own use, with cash coming in mostly from digital projects.

What will you do to make ends meet on your homestead? Whatever it is, make it an extension of your interests and aptitudes, and include the Internet as part of the mix. The Internet can enhance any business, and few rural areas have the population to support small businesses that don’t also have a digital outlet.

Farmer friends of mine are using the Internet to market their high-quality beef to urban markets. A young mother I know makes exquisite chocolates in the commercial-grade kitchen she set up in her country home, and then sells her confections online to consumers across the continent. Living in a remote geographic location often creates a big challenge for rural homesteaders trying to earn money at home, and the Internet helps remove that barrier.


Steve Maxwell is a self-dubbed “backwoods peasant” who connects digitally with a worldwide audience to share his homesteading and DIY expertise. He lives with his family on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Follow him at his home DIY website.

joseph
2/21/2015 5:45:24 PM

This is one of the best articles I Have ever read on Mother Earth News. Your story is truly inspiring and your advice is spot on. Thank you so very much and I wish you and your family continued growth and prosperity.


bethb4
1/18/2015 6:37:03 PM

We lived and loved the dream for over 20 years but when I was moving out of the Old Homeplace I found one of our daily planning notebooks. We kept lists of what we hoped/ planned to do each day but as MargaretTB points out both opportunities and emergencies kept disrupting out plans. After 20 years there were some items still on the list. I am so thankful for all the time we spent working together AND all the things we learned how to do for ourselves and each other. Definately the Good Old Days


margaretb
1/14/2015 7:22:43 AM

You forgot one vital step: Prioritize - the leaky roof trumps a new vanity in the bath kind of thing. Which task is vital to be completed today. Animals must be fed and watered daily. The garden must be planted at the right season. Berries must be picked when ripe. Etc.