In 2009, I quit my corporate job because I couldn’t stand it anymore, and dedicated all of my time to freelance work. Five years later, I feel I’ve accumulated some useful experience that I could share. I haven’t quite conquered the world yet, but I earn a modest income as a freelance translator, penned a number of short stories and comics, and recently finished my third novel, which is on its way to becoming my first full-length published work. This is a series of blogs, talking about various challenges that arose, ensued and (in some cases) were overcome in my ongoing story. I plan to post a new installment every week – if anything, to help me in my eternal battle with discipline, every freelancer’s white whale.
Whether you, like me, are carving the time around you into your own schedule, or trying to balance creative work with a 9-to-5, there’s a chance you’ll find my ramblings helpful, amusing, relatable – or maybe even all of the above.
Part the First – Taking Care of Your Dumb Freelance Self
You know the old adage about working smarter, not harder? Have you heard it thrown around so much that you want to launch a time management book at the next person who says it to you? I know I have. That’s probably why the only time management book I have left is digital (and also the only such book I’ll ever want; I expect I’ll be sharing bits and pieces of it with you along the way, but not yet).
The trouble with a saying like that is, on the surface, it’s an infuriating simplification. Like, if you miraculously became ‘smarter’, work would do itself as soon as you look at it. (Newsflash – it won’t.) I suppose any improvement in your organization means you’re working ‘smarter’. But the first thing I want to address is something that often gets overlooked. Yourself.
Ha, ha, how can I overlook myself? I AM myself, you silly writer.
Well, you’d be surprised. For a simple test – how long will you wait before switching windscreen wipers on, if it starts raining while you’re driving? By contrast, do you always notice when your glasses need a wipe? When working for a long time, do you switch on the light before you have to start squinting at the paper, or getting blinded by the computer screen in an otherwise-dark room? And yet, you probably switch on your car’s headlights pretty pronto in the evenings. (I hope you do. Please don’t drive in the dark. There are laws and stuff.)
So, let’s talk about yourself. I’m going to speak from experience and observation, and aim my advice to people who do most of their work at a desk or a drawing board.
Here’s a TL;DR of this whole section – pay attention to yourself; figure out what works best for you; and stick with it.
Desk jobs that mainly use the brain and fine motor skills put minimal demands to the rest of the body. Annoyingly enough, that’s a huge pitfall, because when we don’t use our bodies heavily, we neglect them the most. I’m not even talking about scary things like eating healthily or, god forbid, getting regular exercise. No, I’m talking about basic stuff like being too cold, too hot, being hungry without realizing it, or working yourself into a rut because your body is nowhere as tired as your brain and is refusing to send you the right signals.
Even if you barely use your body in your work, it’s a place where your brain lives. If you want your brain to cooperate and help you get things done instead of setting up roadblocks, you have to keep it in a happy body.
Factor one – sleep.
Are you a morning person? If you are – congratulations, you’re better than me. At least, that’s what the world has been telling me my whole life. You’d think that after a long and fruitful experience of artificial lightning, the human society would have agreed that any waking hours are acceptable, as long as work is getting done. And yet, no job short of saving people’s lives is a good enough excuse to start the day late. And while a night-shift nurse may avoid the social stigma, it’s not like anyone will keep a bank open an extra hour for her sake.
Seriously, though, in my experience, morning people have always been quite intolerant of other people’s sleeping schedules. Being a nightowl, I’ll never call anyone after nine pm outside of an emergency, unless I’m absolutely sure they go to bed late. Morning people, however, are in the habit of assuming that eight o’clock in the morning is a universally acceptable time for… just about everything, really. Yes, you did wake me up. No, I wasn’t out partying. I finished my novel at three in the morning and then spent an hour bouncing from wall to wall like a pinball in Anxiety Arcade. No, don’t call me back in an hour, you twit, I’m already up and tachycardic. Because I always panic when I’m woken up by a phone call, that’s why. Now what the frack was so important? Oh, now I am being rude?..
Ahem. Years of pent-up circadian frustration aside, my main point here is – make your own damn sleeping schedule, whenever you can afford to. If you’re concerned about the consequences of late nights on your health and capable of keeping an early bedtime with some discipline, then, by all means, early to rise, early to bed… But if your choices are to get up at nine, be at your desk at ten and start getting work done right away; or to get up at seven, dose self with painkillers and caffeine, and sit at your desk blearily hating the world and scrolling down Facebook while trying to put your brain together like a jigsaw… It’s up to you, of course. But I found that if I don’t have to be somewhere, letting my brain set its own alarm is the best thing I can do for it.
Screw the stigma. And put your phone on silent.
(Note: none of this applies if you have children between the ages of 0 and 15. To those of you who do, I offer my sympathy and a triple espresso.)
Factor two – food
For fear of sounding painfully obvious, I’d like to point out that you need to eat. My own feeding habits are a direct factor of the job at hand. When I hate the piece of work that needs doing, food turns into an excellent excuse to leave my desk. But when I’m working on something I enjoy, I can forget about food altogether, as long as there’s a steady supply of coffee. As a result, I often end up with a huge hunger headache, and start freezing in any temperatures below +21. (There are studies suggesting that caffeine inhibits the actual feeling of hunger. On some days, I can be the poster girl for that theory.)
The other side of the food problem is that when you work from home, you’re much more likely to eat more/more often than you would otherwise, since you need to neither spend extra money nor extra time. To make matters worse, unless you keep your house junk-food-free or have tremendous amounts of self-control, freelance work and art will often conspire to make you cram said junk food into your mouth. When on a roll, work-wise, you’ll reach for quick fixes –something to grab off the shelf, take back to your desk, shove in your mouth while working. If you’re having a difficult day, artistic frustration may get smacked by a bar of chocolate, drowned in a pint of ice-cream, or nail-bombed by a bag of Doritos (particularly stubborn specimens take all of the above to handle).
Everyone’s dietary habits are a product of their lifestyle, routine, and health, but I found that a thing that works for me is a large, but healthy breakfast (after years of ‘coffee and pastry’ mornings, I’m proud of myself for developing a love for wholegrain cereal, with a little fruit on top), and then at least one proper meal somewhere during the day. In some cases, it’s a dinner at the end of the working day. In others, it’s a cooked lunch, halfway through the day, warranting a proper, hour-long lunch break.
Or maybe you’re like my husband, who has a small breakfast before work, a small lunch at the office, and a large dinner at home. Or like my mother, who needs to nibble on tiny snacks 24/7 and can’t live without soup. Maybe you have a passion for healthy salads, or get murderous if you don’t get any sugar for more than two hours in a row. I’m not here to lecture you about healthy lifestyle – for that, I’d have to be a nutritionist and a huge hypocrite. All I’m trying to tell you is – be sustainable. And that means being aware that if you pile up on sugar, you’re going to crash a few hours later; if you have a huge meal, you’ll be more likely to sleep than work; and if you go hungry for too long, your productivity will suffer.
Your body is the exoskeleton for your brain. Keep your eye on the fuel gauge, and fill up on good-quality juice with some decent mpg.
Factor three – medicine