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The Secret Habits of Highly Productive Freelancers

One of the prime benefits of freelancerdom is the independence
by Traci Kim | Feb 21 2016
However, without a standard 9-5 or a boss checking in on you regularly, it can be difficult to self-motivate. It’s nice to have the freedom to take that 11am yoga class or the occasional long lunch, but if you cave to every temptation, how does anything ever get done? There’s hope, and it lies in habits.


As autonomous as freelancers may be, it is possible to be independent to a fault. Where’s the delicate balance between independence and productivity? In the end, we’re all still human and succumb to snoozing alarm clocks, snack breaks, and Facebook-YouTube-clickbait kryptonite. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re creatures of habit. However, it’s up to you what these particular habits are. Don’t worry, you’re not doomed to become a victim of your intrinsic urges: you can train your way to good habits using simple tools of conditioning.

Cultivate a mini habit

Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits discusses the difference between willpower and motivation. Motivation is what incentivizes and propels us towards a goal, but it’s willpower that gets us across the finish line. Motivation can wane due to monotony, and we quickly lose interest in the banality of day-to-day tasks. On the other hand, willpower can only become more secured through repetition. It is willpower that has the strength to form new habits. There are no “neutral” habits when it comes to productivity; there are only two types of habits: good ones, and the other kinds.

Start small. It might surprise you how something so innocuous might change your entire mindset and potentially seep into other parts of your life. For example, making your bed – or something else seemingly inconsequential – no one else really sees it, but you do. Maybe once your bed is made, the piles of clutter on the floor and your desk will seem out of place. And once you see that your room is clean, you’re proud of it – and you’ll want the rest of your life to be just as presentable and organized.

Default to now

On a daily basis, there are tons of situations where you might think “do I need to do this now, or can I just get to it later?” It doesn’t really matter: get into the habit of now. Condition your brain to realize that minimal efforts aren’t as taxing as they seem at first. If it’s just as easy to say yes as it is to say no, opt for yes. Stop doing what you’re supposed to do by default. Instead, make that a part of your active routine.

By starting with the little things, that same attitude can ostensibly transfer into functions that require higher brain power. Instead of emailing someone back when you have down time, choose to do it right away.

Turn a critical eye on your habits

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg talks about how to recognize habits in general. They consist of a cue, routine, and reward. Duhigg argues that if we can identify the “why” part of the reward, and change the routine (behavior) itself to achieve the same result, the cue itself will no longer trigger bad habits. Therefore, we can obtain the same great feeling from something constructive instead of counterproductive.

For example, Duhigg noticed that every afternoon, he would eat a cookie around the same time. This caused him to noticeably gain weight, and he decided to do something about it. After some analysis and reflection, he recognized that it wasn’t the cookie itself that was the reward. Instead, he valued the social aspect of eating a cookie because it included chatting with coworkers. So to curb his routine, but still attain the same reward, he traded in cookie-eating for taking a quick walk around the block or simply talking to friends around the office. Finally, no more cookies, but still the same reward of an afternoon break to boost creativity towards the end of the day. In the end, we bear the responsibility for changing our habits, no one else. Particularly for freelancers, accountability and credibility of work ethic is paramount.

Choose your environment wisely

Especially if you work from home, be cognizant of your environment. Are you working from the most optimal space? That said, don’t work in bed. By doing work in bed, you’re conditioning your brain, and your body, that bed is a place for sleeping, relaxing, and working alike. You no longer have an intrinsic association of bed and sleep. On the contrary, your psyche might be confused. How is your brain supposed to know if it should buckle down to focus and design the next best thing or if it should start to simmer down as you throw on some Netflix?

Your clothing = your state of mind

On that note, no more pajamas: get dressed. Raymond Carver was known to write while wearing a three-piece suit, and hey, that’s not so outlandish. It’s a viable work day, not a perpetual Sunday afternoon! Yes, freelancing affords you the freedom to make your own dress code; and no, no one is going to see you, but none of this should come at the cost of your productivity. The extra laundry will pay for itself when you have increased your turnaround rate enough to take on a simultaneous contract. Successful freelancers need the social awareness for self-advocacy, so utilize some of that towards a little reflection as well.

Seek out your window of productivity

Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth encourages readers to take the time to be mindful of their most productive times. Our stream of concentration ebbs and flows throughout the day instead of maintaining at a constant. Once you have these fruitful parts of the day pinpointed, harness them into a schedule. It might mean becoming nocturnal, but if it’ll get you through the week, and your projects, so be it. Tolle talks about how most artists do their creative work at a particular time of day. However, remember that no pattern is also a pattern. If you know yourself well enough to know that your best inspiration is chaos, go with it. Caveat: as romantic as it may be to burn the midnight oil, no one cares if you can’t hit a deadline. Just be sure to put in the legwork and necessary research to find out what really works for you.

According to Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a creative person’s surroundings can have a positive or negative impact on his or her creative output. You are a product of your domain, just as it is a product of you. Think of your environment as an echo chamber – what you give and take from it is cyclical. Therefore, choose to surround yourself with inspiration and creativity. Leave only physical and mental space for the positive.

For example, if someone says don’t think about pink elephants, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Most likely a big, pink elephant. In a split-second reaction there’s only enough time for the brain to generate one image or message. So don’t focus on the negative of what you’re not supposed to do: don’t get distracted; don’t go make more coffee; don’t check your phone; don’t do this, that, or the other; don’t, just don’t. See how quickly this can spiral? Instead, envision the best possible outcome. Thinking about getting stuck with writer’s block? Rather, visualize writing so much you just can’t stop.

Autonomy may come at a price, but it is possible for freelancers to have their cake and eat it, too. Not everything has to be a battle of will if you can learn to curb certain habits, or simply substitute them for others. Ready? You’ve got this! Now—go kill that YouTube tab and get to work.

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