With many more of us working from home than ever before, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things I’ve learned from my nearly 20 years living and working as an independent freelancer having spent all of that time working from a home base.
The key to thriving is to build and develop healthy habits – for work, play and renewal. In my book, Gigonomics: A Field Guide for Freelancers in the Gig Economy, I call them: Foundational Habits, Productivity Habits and Creative Habits. I’ve included the full excerpt below and a link to an entire section of my book that deals with Thinking Like a Freelancer in which I present a thorough review of a number of productivity systems and ways of thinking about work, time and money that may be helpful to people working from home for the first time, and of course, all my fellow freelancers who are struggling in these difficult times.):
Harness the power of habits
This may be the most important chapter of this whole book so if you take in nothing else, remember this. You are your habits. What you do repeatedly defines who you are and has the greatest impact on what you get done during your life.
Some habits form easily (like having that after-work cocktail) and some don’t (like flossing every day). Unfortunately, the bad ones seem much easier forming than the good ones, even if the same principles apply.
So what are useful habits that will serve you throughout your lifetime? Start with the core or foundational habits. These are the habits upon which others can take purchase and be built, and without which it’s hard to make any progress at all. Not surprisingly, the core habits for your successful freelancing career have nothing to do with business.
- Meditate: a daily practice of as little as just one or two minutes a day sitting, focusing on your breath and clearing your mind can develop into a superpower. There are lots of reasons why and how meditation works and the health benefits it brings, which I won’t go into here, as they are easy to find. The only thing to remember here is that meditation is perhaps the core habit from which all others will grow. It is the Ur-habit and it is so beautifully simple you can do it right now. Just stop reading at the end of this sentence, set a timer for one minute, sit straight, breathe in deeply, then out. Close your eyes if you want to, but you don’t have to. Your mind will keep whirring like a fan unplugged. It’s okay. Just focus on breathing. There, now you know how to meditate. Check out Leo Babauta who keeps an excellent blog called ZenHabits which can help you get started on meditation and learning more.
- Sleep well: keep regular sleeping hours and get enough of it. You may need more or less to feel refreshed, but for most people, seven hours is the ideal. Sleeping lets your mind wash itself out with dreams and fills your bones with rest. You cannot live without good, regular sleep. Pulling all-nighters and sprinting to a deadline can pull you out of a slump when used sparingly, but these are not long-term solutions. By prioritizing good sleep. you are investing in your long-term health and well-being, without which neither you or your freelance business will survive.
- Exercise: you know you need to. Just do it. Start with any small effort. A walk around the block. Five squats in the morning. A yoga class. Find a way to bring exercise into your life on a regular basis. Aim for at least three vigorous workouts a week. If you aren’t sweating, you’re not working hard enough. Get your heart rate up and keep your head focussed on doing the exercises, whatever they happen to be. The clarity of mind and focus you gain post-workout is more than worth the price in pain it costs you, not to mention the benefits of having a healthier, stronger body to carry you through. Exercise also stimulates creative thinking. (I often get my best ideas towards the middle or end of a workout session.)
- Eat consciously: This usually means more veggies and smaller portions, but since you already know that, the main point here is to be mindful of what you consume. Think about the food you are putting into your mouth. Where does it come from? Who made it? Is it clean and free of toxins? Is it fresh? Is it full of sugar? Is it processed? Pausing briefly to think before you eat anything will fundamentally alter your relationship to food and provoke change.
With these core habits in place, you will have the strength of mind and body to develop other habits that will help you work intelligently and productively. These are a few of the ones I’ve found most helpful. You may find others that work better for you so feel free to add to or modify the list, but consider implementing some version of these habits into your life to truly engage your latent super powers and unlock your real potential.
- Set your main priorities and keep them visible: Call them resolutions, goals or priorities – these are the big major projects you are working on and what you want to accomplish. Keep the list short and doable (Warren Buffet recommends writing down the 25 things you want to accomplish in life, then striking out the bottom 20 and only concentrate on the top five for the rest of your life.)
- Plan your day the night before: at the end of each day, I write out a short to-do list for what I want to accomplish tomorrow.
- Use brain dumps regularly: I’ve already discussed at length why a brain dump is a powerful mind-cleansing technique that frees your mind from being a storage space and allows it to think and create. Get familiar with doing brain dumps and make them a part of your regular routine.
- Use timers to measure your units of time: As discussed previously, there are various schools of thought about the ideal length of time you should allocate towards a task. Just experiment with different lengths until you find an ideal amount of time that allows you to focus and get work done. Somewhere between 25-45 minutes is a good place to start. You get far more accomplished with five chunks of time than you would simply sitting at your desk for eight hours straight of “working”. Setting a simple timer to let you know when you should be working and when you can break to check email, futz around on Facebook or make yourself a cup of coffee trains you to work in productive bursts without burning yourself out.
- Take frequent breaks: as above, build in lots of mini-breaks throughout the day, and one or two longer (20-minute) breaks to really relax or even power-nap. Everybody’s energy levels spike and dip during the day. While most people tend to feel most energized and creative in the mornings, some people get their best work done after midnight. Choosing how you manage your “work day” is one of the benefits of working as a freelancer — so long as you do it with an understanding of what your natural circadian rhythms are and work your productive sessions around them accordingly.
- Don’t switch tasks: When I worked on construction projects with my brother who was the project manager, I remember him always telling the guys to do one thing at a time and not to switch over to another part of the job until the part they were working on was complete. If they didn’t listen, they made mistakes. Period. Multitasking is simply an excuse for working in a distracted, unfocussed manner. Study after study has proven that jumping from task to task or doing more than one thing at a time simply deteriorates the quality of the work and takes more time to accomplish everything than if the task had been done with focus and concentration. That doesn’t mean you can’t do more than one thing in a day or work on more than one project at the same time, it simply means focussing on one task at a time. You may use the first two 45-minute chunks of time in your day to work on a piece of writing, and then switch over to another project for a few chunks, then switch back. That kind of switch enhances your productivity by allowing you to put your energy towards tasks you are engaged with and giving yourself a break when your mind or attention starts to sag a bit. Checking your emails every five minutes, or Facebook, is not productive and simply disrupts your flow and distracts your mind, fracturing your concentration and the effort that follows.
- Have a frictionless information management system in place to capture and track actionable items: work today is multi-dimensional and comes without neat edges. Work tools, like email or the phone, are also often sources of entertainment, pleasure and personal contacts that don’t have anything to do with work. You need a system that you don’t have to consciously think about that can help you triage information so you don’t waste time sorting through all the different sources of information and tire yourself out before ever actually doing the work that lies buried within. Actionable items can come from within emails, fall out of conversations with friends, clients, colleagues or collaborators, or be the result of your own ideation process. Have a simple system for capturing and tracking actions and make it a habit to parse any information feed for the action items that lie within. If there are none, delete it.
- Perform weekly, monthly and annual reviews: Keep an eye on your progress by periodically scheduling reviews in your calendar and then actually conducting them. How are doing on the projects you are working on? Where are you slipping? Where are you further ahead? Identify where you need to put more time and where you can peel back a little. I sync brain dumps with reviews, doing the brain dump first, then moving on to a review with a clear mind.
Working productively is how you get stuff done, but what you work on that matters to you often flows from your own creativity. Developing habits that train, exercise and maintain your natural creativity skills are just as important. Here are a few of mine:
- Do something creative first: practice creativity every day, ideally first thing in the morning. A creative practice (whether that’s writing something in your journal, taking a photo, drawing, etc.) is an important tool for keeping your mind agile and helps prepare it for the day’s work ahead.
- Write down ten ideas a day: I’ve recently begun this habit (which I got from James Altucher) and while it is sometimes difficult to come up with one, let alone ten, new ideas a day, I am already feeling the benefits of the practice. Simply sitting down and focusing on coming up with ideas is a form of mental workout that then seems to loosen the soil, as it were, for other ideas to sprout throughout the day.
- Write daily: a daily writing habit, as a journal, blog (for public or private viewing) is another way to build up a superpower. Writing is a flow-conducive activity. The more you write, the clearer your mind begins to become and the easier it becomes for you to think more clearly. It helps you process emotions, deal with situations, think through problems and come up with new ideas. If I had to choose one habit to try from this list, it would be this one. And don’t worry about making your journal entries neat and tidy, or always try to be clever, clear or even concise. Just write. A sentence, a word, a list, a random thought. It doesn’t matter what you write and you never have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to — but doing it daily is what will build the mental strength and create a fertile ground in your mind for all kinds of other forms of creativity to take hold.
- Capture your ideas: Use a notebook, your phone or whatever system you can that you can easily work into your lifestyle and is frictionless to access. (I prefer a small notebook and pen). Ideas often happen to me in places like the gym, or on walks, or during conversations. If I don’t write them down right away, I often lose them. Like little fairies, they seem to flit away moments after they present themselves. Having a quick access, no-friction system for capturing ideas helps me remember them and gives me a stress-free way of seeking them out because I have eliminated the anxiety I used to feel about losing an idea I had that I didn’t immediately write down.
Use this link to get the whole chapter on Thinking Like a Freelancer.