Why Freelancers Need Hard Edges in Their Day

Cartoon: creativity leads to structure leads to creativity...

Image by Hugh MacLeod

We are condemned to be free.

(Jean-Paul Sartre)

The great thing about working on your own is that there’s no-one to tell you what to do or when to do it – when to start, when to stop, when to have lunch and whether to work the weekend.

You have so much freedom you could theoretically spend the morning in bed and the afternoon on Facebook, as long as you get the job done.

And the hard thing about working on your own is that there’s no-one to tell you what to do or when to do it – when to start, when to stop, when to have lunch and whether to work the weekend.

You have so much freedom you could theoretically spend the morning in bed and the afternoon on Facebook…

So how do you decide how to arrange your day? Should you work 9-5, or just 4 hours a week, or all the hours God sends?

And how do you get yourself to stick to the schedule, when no one would ever know if you had an extra hour in bed, or played ‘one more game’ of Angry Birds, or took a long lunch, or finished early, or took the whole day off?

Freelancers the world over know that freedom comes with a hidden cost: you have so many choices you can feel paralysed by indecision, like a writer staring at the blank screen, or the artist terrified to make the first mark on a white canvas.

Even when you do decide, it’s hard to know if you made the ‘right’ decision, so you can end up feeling guilty all the time you’re not working. After all, there’s always ‘more to do’ and no one to tell you when you’ve done enough.

Increasingly, this isn’t just an issue for freelancers. Many employees negotiate ‘work at home days’ in order to be more productive, only to find organising their own time is harder than it looks. An open plan office is far from perfect, but in some ways the peer pressure makes it easier to show up and get things done.

If you’re suffering from ‘freedom paralysis’, I invite you to consider an alternative to treating every day as a blank canvas.

Put hard edges in your day

Put hard edges in your day by deciding on a few key elements, and sticking to them.

For example:

  • start time
  • finish time
  • lunchtime
  • fixed times for different types of work – e.g. creating, admin, meetings, email

Begin by analysing your ultradian rhythms, to identify the time(s) of day when you find it easiest to do creative work. Ring-fence those times in your schedule.

Then allocate the other tasks to the rest of the schedule, so that things like email, accounts, and social media are fitted around your creativity, never interfering with your core creative work.

Next add hard edges to your week, by deciding which days you will work and which days will be your weekend or days off.

Commit to testing your new system for at least a week, and review the results to see if you are experiencing the following benefits.

Creative benefits of a structured workflow

Better creative work

When I coach clients through this process, the single biggest benefit I hear them report is a sense of relief: finally, they have dedicated time for creative work, when they can focus on it 100%, without feeling they should be doing something else.

Not only do they get more and better quality creative work done, they find themselves more motivated and energised. They look forward to their ‘creative time’, and don’t resent meetings or admin so much, since these things are no longer interfering with their creativity.

Get more done

The same principle applies to other types of work – when you focus on one thing at a particular time, and batch similar tasks, you become more efficient and get more done overall.

Zap procrastination

Supposing you decide to do your creative work from 2pm to 7pm each day. When 2pm comes round, there’s no decision to make: you are either sticking to the plan or breaking your promise to yourself. And knowing that you only have five hours to complete today’s work can help you panic early enough to get it all done.

Which is very different to coming back to your desk at 2pm and then deciding what to do. In this scenario, your chances of procrastinating are a lot higher, because you always have the option (and the temptation) of faffing around with email or Twitter instead of getting on with your real work. And because you have no fixed ‘finish time’ you can always kid yourself that you’ll do the hard work ‘later’.

Reduced decision fatigue

Making decisions is hard work, using up valuable mental energy. Your work is hard enough without adding to the neurological load. Making a few key decisions up front will leave you free to make more creative use of your brain power every day.

Stop feeling guilty

Freelancer guilt is a great way to turn freedom into misery, by spending most of your waking hours telling yourself you should be doing:

  • More work“Can you afford to knock off work this early?”
  • Different work“Shouldn’t you reply to those e-mails before playing with your paintbrush?” vs “Why are you wasting valuable painting time answering email?”

But once you decide which hours to allocate to different tasks, and stick to the plan, you can stop feeling guilty. It’s fine to work on your masterpiece now, because you’ll catch up with the email before the day is out. And when you know you are putting in your ‘creative hours’ it’s no great tragedy to spend time in your inbox.

If you don’t experience any or most of these benefits, go back to the drawing board and ask yourself which elements need to change. Keep adjusting and experimenting until you find the right balance of freedom and structure.

“But aren’t these limits constricting?”

Only if you decide on limits that don’t work for you. In which case, change them!

Remember, I’m suggesting you design your ideal working day, to minimize drudgery and maximize creativity. So whether you prefer to create in the morning, afternoon or the middle of the night, make that the foundation of your workflow. To me, that’s a pretty liberating concept.

Freedom isn’t about reinventing the wheel every single day, it’s about making decisions you are happy with. Some decisions – like choosing what to eat at the restaurant – are fun to make afresh each time. But others – such as what hours/days to work – can be made once and only revisited if you don’t like the results. You’re still exercising your freedom.

And freedom isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to creativity – a little bird tells me that sometimes, creativity thrives on constraints.

Over to you

Do you have ‘hard edges’ in your day or do you prefer to go with the flow?

What are the benefits of your chosen approach?

Are there any drawbacks?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, add Mark on Twitter or Google+.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

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Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

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Responses to this Post


  1. Turning Pro in a nutshell. H’ray!

    I’ve been flailing about in “freedom” far too long. Not enough play time. Too much play time. Waiting for inspiration. Grinding out garbage long after grinding serves any purpose.

    Choosing a start time AND a finish time. What a concept.

    Since I just wrote “You Don’t Want a Job” I find myself constantly rebelling against anything that feels too structured. Nonsense! Even poetry has structure. Language, art, web design, life; life itself is structure, whether we create it or simply react to it.

    I gotta make me a schedule of those start times and finish times.

    I do so love common sense.

  2. I only have one productivity tip that works for me, and works for whoever I teach it to. That’s “ring-fencing” as you call it. I call it sprinting.

    I choose what’s important, block out time to do it, then play music and get focused for 25 minute intervals.

    • We can only really concentrate for about 25 minutes, so that makes a lot of sense. Especially with good music. 🙂

      I think of ‘ring fencing’ as being more about the big picture idea keeping time free on the schedule, rather than the act of blocking out the world and ‘sprinting’ on the day.

  3. Hi Mark,

    This is a great post. Three weeks a go… I felt completely overwhelmed in my work and in my life. We have a small child, I write freelance, consult with social media/seo and run my own blog… I also have other artistic dreams. There just wasn’t enough time in the day.

    But the thing was…

    I was filling in time and not working smart. After reading Tim Ferris’s Four hour work week… I decided to be radical and work only from 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Thursday…. the result’s have been amazing AND no income lost.

    Too much time is a bad thing if there are not boundaries huh?

    Thanks again

    • Too much time is a bad thing if there are not boundaries huh?

      Indeed! Work expands to fill the time allotted to it. The 4 Hour Work Week is great for challenging assumptions about what ‘has’ to be done, great to hear you’re getting more done with less.

  4. Ohhh… this is SO good, Mark! I’m sharing with my tribe right away. You’ve eloquently described a very flexible approach to this common dilemma.

    You’re absolutely right: Creativity often DOES thrive on constraints…

    And only you can decide how restrictive those constraints really are to both your productivity and overall happiness.

    • Thanks Ed, I thought it might resonate, given your knowledge of the challenges of freelancing.

      Yes, the critical thing is setting your own constraints, and evaluating whether they help or hinder you. So much better than having to deal with constraints imposed by other people…

  5. Hi Mark,

    Thanks a lot for this post. I, too, have learned to give my days some structure. Every Friday I fill in a work sheet that contains all my priorities. Additionally, I block time in my diary for all the different tasks. This way, I know that I don’t forget anything and I clear my mind before the weekend (and so stop worrying about al the work I need to do next week). The best thing: Even though my diary is full (something that stressed me a lot in the past), I work less and can finish the day early once I ticked all the things on the list, without feeling guilty.

    My exclusive tip: I got rid of all those unwanted newsletters that blocked my inbox and only stick to the relevant ones (like yours). Also, I blocked a lot of updates on Facebook that were nothing but time stealers. It’s terrific how much time I have won for exercising, meditation and creative work.



    • Thanks Gaby, great to hear your system helps you get everything off your mind for the weekend! Sounds like the kind of experience that reminds us why we chose freelancing in the first place.

      And delighted to hear I survived the email cull. 😉

      Enjoy your weekend…