This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

 

I’ve been told so many times that I must have such great self-discipline (as a freelancer) that I’m beginning to believe it myself.

And I guess, to some degree, it’s true.

But honestly, that self-discipline ebbs and flows with my energies and emotional well-being.

So, not being able to rely on it 24/7, I find myself relying much more on a concept that seems contrary to the very essence of freelancing.

I refer to “routine”.

Opposites attract?

Freelancing seems to be, in many ways, the exact antithesis of “routine”.

It is never dull, rarely exactly the same twice and often involves unexpected twists and turns.

The word “routine,” on the other hand, seems to belie all of that. Routine sounds so… routine. So banal. 

And yet the ability to create a sustainable routine is another of the invaluable components in my freelancer’s tool kit. It has enabled me to survive amidst the randomness and chaos that would otherwise dominate my freelancing life. 

So I find the idea of creating “routine” in my life quite compelling. 

Chaos vs. routine

There must be freelancers who thrive on complete chaos. They are probably war correspondents, storm chasers, perhaps even social activists; those who need the unadulterated adrenalin rush. 

For me, chaos is the enemy. It is only by imposing structure upon the daily void of existence that brings me both the confidence to create and the actual circumstances that enable me to do so. 

My freelancer’s imagination is still turned on by new and unexpected events and ideas. Indeed, these usually form the core stimulus of whatever project I choose to engage in. What I’m talking about is an underlying mechanism in my life which gives me the launching pad from which to pursue such new exciting topics.

“Routine” is the dependable framework, the trustworthy infrastructure, upon which I can build all my otherwise unpredictable freelancing activities. 

Types of routine

1. Time

I generally plan my time in advance  – my days, my weeks, even my months.

I set regular times to work, to answer emails, to make cold calls, to do research. I also build in lots of time to chill out. Of course, the routine can be thrown out of whack by looming deadlines or unexpected clients but they can be readily accommodated. The concept of routine is not meant to be written in concrete. It should respond robustly to the daily give and take of life.

For example, I like to do emails and cold calls first thing in the morning. Usually I then break for brunch before revising work done the night before.

This regular routine serves me well.

Why? The routine reinforces the work habit even when my self-discipline may falter. Repetition on a daily basis works the creative muscle like a fighter training in the ring. Do it every day and the routine becomes second nature.

However, if a friend calls and needs my support I can abandon the routine. I have the confidence to do so arising from the knowledge that I have a routine upon which I can fall back. It provides me with such productivity on a regular basis that I can afford to take time out when required.

2. PlaceOutside

I love to walk. I’ve already written about its health and creative benefits. Where do I walk? I like to visit some of the same places every day. I also visit places I have never been before at other times when I am in an exploring mode.

I find a walk along the waterfront invigorating as well as creatively inspiring. I never get bored. It’s part of my routine. In fact, I find the sameness gives my abstract thinking a lift. It’s as if the safe familiarity of location gives me permission to go on autopilot and let my thoughts soar above whatever creative problems I am trying to solve. 

3. Place – Inside

I have also created a physical work space in my home office that figures predominantly in my routine. I only go into that space to work and only when I work am I in that space.

That singularity of purpose is part of my routine I find most productive. I have lost count of the number of times I have anguished over writer’s block only to get into my work space and let the routine it invokes take over to help me produce the necessary work.

So routine encourages my brain to perform even when I don’t really feel like it. And definitely when I don’t feel I have the self-discipline to do so. 

Remind me

I use many basic tools to act as visual reminders of my daily routine. Creating them and deploying them actually becomes part of my routine.

I use lists, diaries, calendars, timetables, clocks set at various world times (depending upon where my clients live) etc. 

Routine = Ritual?

Each of us develop small recurring routines or rituals that collectively make up the bigger routine of our daily lives. 

For example, at the end of every day I make out a list of things I need to do tomorrow. I tick off the old list I made the previous night. Then I leave notes about my work to be started next morning on top of my laptop every night.

It is my “yesterday” self helping my “tomorrow” self get started. These are just a few of the rituals that facilitate my bigger daily routine. 

Their practical value is obvious. But their repeated practice has another dimension. These recurring rituals seem to increase my confidence to be productive.  

Perhaps all routine when successful also manifests as a form of self-hypnotism to promote the creative process. If I break a ritual or routine once established it seems to be almost inviting inhibition to my creativity. Irrational, maybe, but a genuine consequence.

The takeaway

I only appreciated how much I rely on “routine” to facilitate my self-directed work after I had recently moved. Suddenly my routines were all discombobulated. It felt difficult to create, and almost impossible to work. I realized I had to begin assembling new routines from which I could organize and renew my creativity. 

I’m now beginning that process, taking it a day at a time. But as they go by and my new routines are taking hold I find a greater sense of confidence and a growing desire to stretch my freelancing muscles once more to take on new and exciting challenges.

Self-discipline? It can desert you when you most need it. But a good routine is always there to fall back on when you don’t feel inspired. It is the stolid launching pad to transport you to places you could never imagine reaching otherwise.

 

Do you use routines to increase your freelance productivity, or is your daily workflow more spontaneous? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

POSTED IN: Columns