This week, I’ve decided to focus on a problem that’s not unique to freelancers, but which you’ve almost certainly faced if you’ve ever worked from home: sorting out your work rhythms.
For me, this has been one of the hardest things about getting started as a freelancer: in the absence of a clearly defined, externally imposed schedule, it can be very difficult to work regular and consistent hours.
Working the Other 9-5
Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a morning person. Getting to work on time was a struggle even when I had an office job. Still, back when I worked in admin, I did manage to drag myself out of bed every morning and stagger into the office at something resembling a reasonable time.
Within two days of starting to work from home, I was back to getting up at noon, sitting around the house in my dressing gown all day, and clocking off for the night at the other 5 o’clock.
Having the freedom to set your own timetable is one of the great joys of working for yourself, but it can become a curse when you’re writing blog posts at 2:44 AM*, caffeine fuelled and bleary eyed, while everyone else in the house is asleep except your night-owl boyfriend (and believe me, no one wants to be setting their watch by his sleep-wake cycle).
I was working late into the night and sleeping through the best part of the day, and it was ruining both my sleep patterns and my ability to socialise with normal, diurnal people.
To make matters worse, I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to nail my work rhythms that I would often try to force myself to get up early after a late night of work, in an attempt to jump-start a healthier working pattern. This only ever made me sleep-deprived, cranky, and even less productive than usual.
My work rhythms weren’t working for me, and I needed to find a way to fix that.
Everyone’s attitude to their working patterns is different, so what has helped me may not be what works for you. Some people (the aforementioned night-owl boyfriend, for example), love being able to ditch the 9-5 entirely. Others, like my dad (also a freelance author) thrive on a rigid morning-evening work schedule.
For myself, the most important step to sorting out my work rhythms was to accept that, at first, I would sometimes (read: most of the time) get them wrong. I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to work solidly from 9 until 5, and feeling guilty when I failed. Instead, I began trying to figure out the times of day when I was at my most productive, and the working patterns which helped me get more done.
For example, I tend to work very effectively in short bursts. For this reason, I’ll often set aside small, time-sensitive tasks to complete while I’m on the train or the bus, since I know I’ll have half an hour free then to work on them exclusively. When I’m at home, I set timers for short tasks to keep myself focused.
Figuring out working patterns that actually, well, work, is a time-consuming process. It took me months of erratic working days and unproductive faffing around before I began to settle into a rhythm that was comfortable for me, and I’m still not completely there yet.
The simple act of forgiving myself when I do mess up, though, has already helped me bounce back from late nights faster, and get more done.
1. Recognise sunk costs, and move on from them: if you’ve accidentally spent the morning playing Final Fantasy rather than working on your portfolio, that’s a shame. It would be an even bigger shame if you spent the afternoon beating yourself up about it. It’s hard to work productively when you’re wallowing in guilt, so resist the urge. Forgive yourself and move on.
2. Give yourself permission to take breaks: sometimes, and despite your best efforts, work just isn’t going to happen. It might be because you’re sick. It might be because you pulled an all-nighter last night and your brain hasn’t recovered yet. Sitting listlessly at your desk reading the same sentence over and over again isn’t going to do you or your career any favours. When you’re not getting anything done, it’s OK to take some time off. Giving yourself permission to take a proper break will help you to recharge and be more productive when you’re feeling better, while soldiering on will lead only to diminishing returns.
3. Figure out what works for you: the greatest advantage of freelancing is that you can set your own schedule. This means that if the 9-5 doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to work 9-5! Take the time to figure out when, where and how you get your best work done—it will be worth the effort.
* Like, say, this blog post, for example.