Some things that work for me might work for you, too.
I’ve been a freelance writer since I left my last full-time job in 1990. While freelancing might sound great to the folks who punch a clock or work some version of the typical 9 to 5 grind, it’s not all about working in your pajamas and goofing off in coffee shops. It more about finding work that pays and getting the work done on time. If you’re a good freelancer, you’re doing those two things every working day. If you’re not, you’re probably not earning a living as a freelancer.
My Background as a Writer
My career has followed what might look like a bell curve. A slow start in 1990 with a steep rise in the late 1990s that peaked in the mid 2000s and began a decline in 2006 or so. This is mostly because the market for what I wrote — computer how-to books for beginning to intermediate users — has gone into decline, pushed into obsolescence by the rise of Google, Internet based software support, and video how-to. I was fortunate enough to hop on the video train in 2006 and have authored a number of videos for a great organization, Lynda.com. I still do this and I really enjoy it. But the heydays of writing about computers is definitely over.
Fortunately, I still have enough of a reputation as a writer that I can get opportunities to write short how-to articles and blog posts for paying markets. I did quite a few of these over the years, but lost interest in 2011 and hit a mental road block in 2012 that made it very difficult to write much of anything. I’ve worked my way though that now, mostly out of necessity. My recovery is due, in part, to two new editorial contacts that have offered me money for fresh content. Because my other work as a helicopter pilot is seasonal and very slow in the winter months, I’m embracing these new opportunities. My book and video course royalties only go so far.
Unfortunately, I’m also still “flaking out” once in a while — basically dropping the ball on opportunities I should consider myself lucky to get. As I told one of my editors the other day, I’m my own worst enemy. When I’m focused, I can write good content very quickly — my editors are always happy with what I send. The trick is getting and staying focused long enough to get the job done.
And that brings me to today’s topic: setting up and sticking to a routine.
My Current Routine
I am a morning person. I have been for longer than I can remember. I wake up early and work best before noon. This becomes extremely important as I try to maximize productivity and still have time to take care of the other important things in my life — like the construction of my new home, socializing with friends, and exploring new hobbies like beekeeping and warm glass work.
That said, I generally wake between 4 and 6 AM. (Yes, I know that’s pretty freaking early, but that’s the way things are these days. I haven’t set an alarm clock in years.) I usually stay in bed until at least 5; if I wake before that, I check in on Twitter and Facebook on my iPad before getting out of bed. I’ll also check the weather and my calendar for the day. (More on the calendar in a moment.)
After taking care of bathroom stuff, I head into the kitchen to make coffee, wash the few dishes that might be in the sink, and feed Penny the Tiny Dog. Sometimes I’ll make breakfast, too.
I take my coffee and breakfast to the kitchen table where I spend some quiet time writing in my journal about the previous day’s activities and thoughts. (If you think I share a lot here and on social networks, you should read my journal. This blog is the tip of a very deep iceberg. I’ve already made arrangements to have it published when I die.)
By 7 AM, I’m at my desk working. I try to spend a solid 4-6 hours writing. I’ll try to write work I can sell first, but if nothing comes to mind, I’ll write in my blog about something that’s been on my mind. Sometimes that stimulates my mind enough to trigger ideas for a piece I can sell.
Yesterday was an extremely productive day. By 8 AM, I’d already written a 450-word illustrated how-to article for an editor, a short illustrated blog post for this blog, and a brief proposal for a new video course. I’d gotten an early start — I was at my desk by 5 — but I was still pleasantly surprised.
Distraction is my enemy and it takes many forms. Social media is the worst. Using the Internet to research and shop for things that interest me comes next. Reading old blog posts comes after that. If I’m not careful, these activities can blow hours of my day.
Oops! I’m back. Just lost 30 minutes doing all of the above. Seriously. I wish I were kidding.
The key is to not allow distractions to take you away from your work. Face it: if a task takes 4 hours to complete and you blow away 2 hours on distractions, you now have a 6-hour work day. Wouldn’t you rather finish your work and have the rest of the day off to deal with other things, including those distractions? I know I would. But sometimes it’s difficult to avoid them.
(This is something that’s been on my mind for a while. In 2007, I blogged “5 Tips for Staying Focused.” And in 2009, I blogged “Writing Tips: Avoiding Distractions.”)
When I’m done with the task at hand and have nothing on my calendar to take me away from my desk, if I’m on a roll I try hard to keep working. Yesterday, after a lengthy midday distraction, I made several false starts on a blog post for an aviation blog, started to write a different flying-related blog post for my own blog, and realized what I was writing for my blog might work for the other blog. I pasted the text from my blog composition software — yes, I still use ecto — to Microsoft Word and finished it up. I sent it in and crossed my fingers that it’s accepted. If it isn’t, no sweat; I’ll publish it here on this blog and write something else.
I should mention my calendar and its importance in all this. Because I do my best work in the morning, I try to schedule all my non-work activities for the afternoon. This reserves the morning time for work. I also put everything on my calendar, mostly because I forget scheduled responsibilities if I don’t. And I use to do list software that automatically syncs between my Mac, iPhone, and iPad to keep track of tasks that need to be done and maintain a shopping list. (I should probably blog about that one day, too.)
Yesterday I had to run errands down in the valley (on my to do list), buy a few items (on my to do list), and join some friends for dinner and pumpkin carving (on my calendar). Because I was determined to finish that blog post before I joined my friends and because I allowed midday distractions to eat into my work time, I arrived late for the social activities and only ran two of three errands.
That’s my basic routine: Wake early, coffee, journaling, and writing work in the morning; personal and social activities in the afternoon and evening.
I should mention here that I’ve tried working in the afternoon after something takes up my morning and I simply can’t do it. There’s something about the morning that makes me more productive and enables me to stay more focused. When I sit at my desk in the afternoon, I can’t even get started. The distracting influences are simply calling too loudly.
I should also mention that the short days I experience here in Central Washington State make it very easy to occupy myself at my desk in the early morning. The sun rose this morning at 7:43. (Of course, next week, when we change the clocks, that’ll drop back to 6:43.) But, on average, I’m awake for two or more hours before the sun rises here in the late autumn, winter, and early spring. If I’m not working at my desk, what else could I be doing when it’s still dark out? To me, I’m spending the least useful part of the day doing something that helps me earn a living, leaving the most useful part of the day available to do other things. In the summer, of course, things are very different — and so is my routine.
Setting Up Your Routine
That’s my routine. Now think of yours.
First of all, consider when your best work period is. I’m certainly not suggesting that you wake before 6 and hit the keyboard. (Hell, I wish I didn’t do it.) That works for me but it won’t work for everyone.
Once you know when that golden productivity time is, schedule your day around it. Make that period of time sacred, a time when the only thing you’ll do is work-related. Follow the suggestions in the two posts I linked to above to minimize distractions. Know that distractions will only lengthen your time at your desk. Don’t allow yourself to leave a task unfinished if it only needs another hour or two of your undivided attention to get done. Finishing tasks is extremely rewarding.
If you finish early and have other tasks to complete, do them! Do enough of them and you might get a whole day off.
Ddo your best to make each day’s work schedule pretty much the same, creating a routine. This adds a rhythm to your life that should make it easier to get work done.
What do you think? Use the comments link or form to share your thoughts and tips.