How to schedule my time as a freelance writer?
October 3, 2006 5:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm in an enviable position, I guess. I am a freelance writer, with a free schedule (no outside commitments), an outside office to work in, no immediate financial pressure. So what's the problem?

I am having trouble motivating myself lately. I have a few projects in the pipeline, including one huge one I've been working on for a while, but I keep putting them off. I need to get busy pitching myself to more potential clients, but I keep putting it off. I need to get writing on some of the things I have to complete, but I keep putting it off. I manage to get myself out of bed and into the office at a decent time, but I then fritter the day away on unimportant tasks.

How the hell do I get it together and take advantage of the opportunities I have in my life? I could be so much more productive, but I can't seem to get myself motivated. Any ideas or tips?
posted by different to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
My guess (and I'm living with similar circumstances) is that you need to set goals with deadlines. Then map out your calendar for the next day or week, leaving space to do the same for the next period. Try to stick to your plan - sometimes motivation comes after action, rather than causing it.

Just going to mention the inevitable - have you considered depression and pharmaceutical options? (I prefer to maintain by exercising).

I look forward to the rest of this thread.
posted by b33j at 5:14 AM on October 3, 2006

Response by poster: Just going to mention the inevitable - have you considered depression and pharmaceutical options? (I prefer to maintain by exercising).

I have indeed. It turned out that a lot of my inability to concentrate was caused by chemical problems. That's now largely sorted, but I still have the underlying problem of never having developed good work habits which is something that I now need to address.

You do make a good point though, one that I'd forgotten - I haven't been getting enough exercise lately and definitely do need to get myself into it again.
posted by different at 5:18 AM on October 3, 2006

Freelance isn't free.

You have to treat it totally as a full time job.

Wake up with an alarm clock. Breakfast, lunch, dinner are scheduled items. So is "surfing" the internet.

You haven't developed "good work habits?" Now's the time to do it.

Look into David Allen's Getting things done...but most important....create structure. I suspect that you know this, but (like so many of us) avoid it.
posted by filmgeek at 5:41 AM on October 3, 2006

Ditto the setting yourself a schedule. Start with one that breaks your day into 30 minute segments; play in screwing-around time and such, and when you get the hang of it, start to only give yourself weekly/daily deadlines.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:02 AM on October 3, 2006

You don't actually mention how happy you are, or if you enjoy what you do.

I'm suffering the exact same things are, and i can tell you right now it's because i'm bored.
posted by lemonfridge at 6:10 AM on October 3, 2006

I've only been properly organised for about six months after years of muddling along and procrastinating to a scary degree, and the key has been changing the way I plan stuff.

I don't follow the Getting Things Done program (overkill, I'm just not that busy) but one thing I've picked up from it is what you might call atomising everything you need to do. So, instead of thinking 'I have to write a feature on Mr. X by next Friday' you write down everything you need to do to accomplish that task, drilling down to a seemingly ridiculous level, and then schedule each little part of the overall project.

Having every little thing written down clearly in front of me has helped enormously - I just don't seem to procrastinate as much when faced by a large number of clearly defined tasks as I do when facing one loose project. (It's almost weird - I applied the same system to household stuff and within a week had sorted stuff out I'd been meaning to do for 18 months!)
posted by jack_mo at 6:26 AM on October 3, 2006

If you're not motivated, chances are you don't really feel in control of what you're doing. I suggest that you look at things that you're aware of as minor irritations and consider whether or not they may be bothering you more than you think. I think they can be usefully divided into: things you need to sort out with someone else, physical things you can sort out for yourself, things you need to sort out in your head.

Things you need to sort out with someone else (even if it means going through a difficult conversation):
  • Not being sufficiently clear as to what is expected of you for the assignment.
  • Feeling that the assignment as specified cannot be completed to a good standard because the specification does not make sense to you.
  • You lack information you need to do the assignment with confidence.
Physical things you need to sort out yourself:
  • The paperwork/computer files for the project are poorly organized.
  • You can't concentrate in your working environment.
  • Some aspect of your skill set is not up to scratch and you need to develop it.
  • You're run down and need to take better care of yourself.
Things you need to sort out in your head:
  • Perfectionist tendencies.
  • Dwelling on past failures.
  • Dwelling on how late the project is.
  • Just plain worrying too much.
All of these things will kill your energy, productivity, and happiness given the chance, but the first category is especially deadly because it's often tied up with issues relating to personal pride, status, etc. (yours and other people's) and this makes it tempting to think that it's easier to try and keep going with an unsatisfactory understanding of the situation than to fix the problem. Don't give in to this temptation.

I suggest that you get out of your regular work environment, relax with a cup of coffee and think about what's really holding you back right now.
posted by teleskiving at 6:53 AM on October 3, 2006 [4 favorites]

I know exactly what you mean, and the problem you're having comes about precisely from having too much freedom. In positions where you have assignments, you motivation may come from external sources - your boss, colleagues are depending on you and you want to do a good job. Now with the freedom to write and sell your own stories, your motivation has to come from within. Perhaps this sounds obvious, but perhaps you've never really thought about where your motivation is really coming from, and what emotions are behind it.

Fear was behind my biggest block to date. I was scared that if someone saw what I had been working on that they'd find some obvious flaw and I'd be embarrased. "You've been working for 6 months, and that's all you got?" Unless it's perfect, clever, and original from the start, I didn't want to do it, which meant that I never got anything done. Someone in an earlier procrastination question said, "A first draft is only a first draft, and it's going to be full of flaws, but a first draft is better than no draft at all."
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:06 AM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: Here's what I did. Much like you, I needed to better manage my days as a freelancer. Half measures were simply not helping me, so in iCal, I set up the following schedule, every day, M-F, with an alarm clock to beep and pop up on my screen.

8:30-9:30- blogs, email, coffee, newspaper
9:30-11:30- freelance pitching, story ideas, article writing
11:30-12- exercise 1 (get outside, run errands, go for a brisk walk, or start to head to where i'm eating lunch-- just get out!)
12-1- lunch
1-3- fiction writing/brainstorming
3-4- email, news, maybe blogs
4-5- exercise 2 (a jog or trip to the gym)
5-6- write for my own blog
6-6:30- odds and ends, preparing for tomorrow, or if I was good, time to walk away for the DAY

This worked for me because I knew that EVERY DAY I would get to all of things percolating in my head. I promised myself I would adhere to this schedule no matter what, except for dire reasons and truly the time I was on it was my most productive as a freelancer ever. (So much so that it parlayed into a staff job I really wanted, where, for the moment, I can't keep that schedule.)

Now, living in NYC, everything I needed to do outside of my apartment, such as eat, exercise, run errands, go to the post office, were all about two blocks away from me, maximum. So travel time may be a factor in your "getting out" blocks, but I feel it's necessary to stay sane during the day. Before this schedule, I could go three days without leaving my apartment. Not healthy.

Second, email and blogs. I stopped letting the pace of other people's emails dictate my schedule. I stopped hitting refresh on blogs. I logged off IM except for during those chunks of time. What did I find? When I started Mail, my email was there, waiting for me! No one sent me angry emails wanting to know why I hadn't replied in 3 minutes! Amazing. And blogs-- they have this feature. The old stuff is below the new stuff. So if I just read down the page once a day, I could catch every single item that I hadn't seen while I was busy working. Putting aside these two tools of the devil into highly manageable chunks was probably the single most important step towards making the entire rest of my schedule work.

My case sounded alot like yours. I was drastically stuck in a rut and not taking advantage of the opportunities I had worked so hard to have available to me. This drastic measure helped me get back on track. Hope it can help you too.
posted by raconteur at 7:37 AM on October 3, 2006 [12 favorites]

A great read, and short, is Art and Fear, by Bayles and Orland.

( )

It talks about why great art (painting, sculpture, writing, music) doesn't get done and how to break some logjams. It's a one-sitting read and a good investment for your abundant idle time.

One observation they make is that talent has jack shit to do with accomplishment. Output, on the other hand does. if you're not outputting, you're no writer. You are a label, and a self-printed one at that.

Consider for a moment that you will be dead fairly soon, and in all likelihood, fairly obscure when you die. If you don't do something right now, tomorrow you may not be able to.

Life is over in an instant.

You can use the great advice of the other responders here once you've started, but first, you have to light your own fuse.
posted by FauxScot at 8:22 AM on October 3, 2006

*** 1 ***

Topic already covered here:

*** 2 ***

My advice below assumes you don't have a mental illness that requires medication. If you do take medication, talk to your doctor about your lack of motivation. He or she may be able to fix that by changing your medication.

*** 3 ***

Barring that odd case, you can do all kinds of stuff to try to make yourself feel motivated. Techniques include using a 40-minutes-working/20-minutes-playing ratio, or writing down your successful outcome and next physical action (a la _Getting Things Done_), or scheduling your non-working time instead of your working time (the "unschedule" in _The Now Habit_), or using motivational tapes, or visualization, or whatnot. You can find lots of techniques by Googling "procrastination."

I have some bad news, though. Some anti-procrastination techniques will make you feel a lot more motivated, some will make you feel a little more motivated, but some won't work at all. Often, one technique will change your feelings for a while, then it will stop working, and you will have to use another one to change how you feel. None of the techniques will consistently make you want to do your work.

More bad news: no matter what anti-procrastination technique you use, in the end, you still have to do the work. Beck said, "Drugs won't kill you day job," and the analogy to anti-procrastination techniques is apt. Whether you feel good, bad, or indifferent about it, the work still needs to be done, and you are the one who has to do it.

Good news! A faulty premise underlies the concept of most anti-procrastination techniques, which is that you need to feel motivated before you can do your work. There are at least two problems stemming from this premise:

1. Your feelings give you important information about yourself and the world, but they are impossible for you to control directly. You can do things to try to affect your feelings (like listening to music, dancing around, anti-procrastination techniques and so on), and these may or may not work in any particular situation, but you cannot control your feelings in the same way you can control your body (like touching your nose, putting on your pants, writing your thesis, and so on). So if you put your controllable actions at the mercy of your uncontrollable feelings, your life becomes out of control to a certain degree, as though you were often basing important decisions on the flip of a coin.

2. Ironically, motivation frequently follows action rather than precedes it. Once you start doing the dreaded task, you may find yourself feeling more motivated to do it, but if you wait for motivation to wash over you before beginning it, you may have to wait for a long time.

My advice is to separate how you feel from what you do. Something like this:

1. Accept reality, including how you feel about it.

2. Know your objective. What is the world asking you to do right now?

3. Do what needs to be done.

Don't give up! It is possible to still do good work when you don't particularly feel like it, or even when you hate the thought of doing it. Best of luck.

-amtho's other half, posting as amtho
posted by amtho at 9:25 AM on October 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

There's a great book called The War of Art that helped me a lot. Yet, here I am, not writing.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:14 AM on October 3, 2006

In much the same situation, I've found a few tricks work (when I can manage to remember them):

* Get up early and on time every day. Most productive in the morning.
* Schedule choes, errands, etc in the 1-2 hours after lunch, when my brain takes a snooze, rather than struggling with work and feeling unproductive.
* Turn the computer OFF at 5, 6 whenever, instead of coming back to it many times over the course of the evening.

I've found it's mostly about a) keeping a schedule, and b) becoming clear as to what schedule you work best with, and not fighting it (i.e. are you a morning person, night person, etc.) So, either 9-5 or whatever works best for you, just stick to it.

And with that, I now return to work...
posted by gottabefunky at 10:41 AM on October 3, 2006

I recommended this on another thread but are you a member of the Freelance Success board? They have pitch contests and goal buddies and other ways to get you motivated.

Also how about trying another genre just for fun? The Second City Writing Course is awesome-I took it and I believe it's helpful in inspiring and motivating all sorts of writers.
posted by clairezulkey at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2006

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