Image by Hugh MacLeod
We are condemned to be free.
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.
- start time
- finish time
- fixed times for different types of work – e.g. creating, admin, meetings, email
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.
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?
This is an extract from Mark McGuinness’ book Productivity for Creative People – a practical guide to getting your real work done amid the demands and distractions of modern life.