How To Be Self-Disciplined: A Freelancer’s Guide

I write to you now from my bed, where I’m sitting and eating heated up Indian-food-in-a-bag and half-watching a Simon Amstell stand-up special on YouTube. My cat is here, too. It is 4:54 in the afternoon. It is a weekday. And no, I’m neither depressed nor unemployed – I’m just a freelancer. 

After five years of working in the service industry to supplement my ever-so-vague “creative aspirations,” I finally took the plunge a few weeks ago. I abandoned my cushy job at a cool Brooklyn bar so I might, in theory, spend all my afternoons writing at a desk that faced a window. I would be like Carrie Bradshaw. I would rise early, and go to yoga or a museum, or go have breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’d putter through the mornings until inspiration hit, then go to rehearsals and shows in the evenings.

At first, I mostly figured on time – I’d have hours and hours of unprescribed time, hours I would own fully. I would be able to clean my apartment, practice guitar, explore New York the way I always hoped I would. I’d go to cafes! Everything on my to-do list would go accounted for! But, alas…none of this was to be.

Uncomfortably, I’ve begun to understand that even freelance obligations are jobs – in that deadlines arise, and emails must be responded to, and no, Brittany, you don’t in fact just have every day off. In fact, freelancing requires a highly ambitious temperament. As with any creative profession, you need to be hyper self-starting in order to build a list of contacts, and, you know, get paid. In practice, it turns out, freelancing is really just a job without an office. And the world went, Duh.

So as I attempt the grisly process of growing self-discipline-bones, I impart these early lessons to other people who work from home, on their own clocks, as their own bosses. Know that we’re out there on the front lines together. I can get my business together, and so can you.

Step One: Make a Schedule and Stick To it (…or, get the heck out of bed)

The first few days of freelancing, I slept in. I make my own hours, I’d remind myself gleefully, assuaging my midnight conscience during a Netflix binge the night prior. So what if I’m on email by ten? Eleven? …Twelve? In the next few days of freelancing, I discovered that one of my contract jobs could be accomplished while I half-watched a TV show, or half-listened to a podcast. Last week, I logged sixteen hours at this job – all of them from bed, while gorging on Orange is the New Black.

For productivity’s sake, even if you can “multi-task” your work with more personal pursuits…I have learned, you probably shouldn’t. Your work will be better (and the rewards, sweeter) if you compartmentalize your time. Make a list of the things you need to have done in a day, then allot specific hours for each. When you need to, wake up and get cracking. Unplug the Internet if you’re prone to clickbait – but don’t permit distractions, and don’t let yourself push commitments back. It’s a slippery slope into sloth.

Step Two: Designate a Support System

The thing I like best about the service industry is the people you meet. Often, your bar compatriots are also writers or actors or musicians or students, and so make for inspiring company. At my most recent job, everyone was so jazzed by everyone else’s outside-work passions and hobbies that work often felt like a little art-y clinic. It was the kind of inspiring community that reminds you: yes, I do want to work hard to accomplish my huge, ridiculous dreams. Because look at Jericho and his stand-up comedy! Kid’s going places!

This kind of culture gets rare, a few years out of college. People become jaded, or very busy with their personal lives. But I’ve learned that surrounding oneself with the similarly driven does miles of work towards fueling artistic ambition. If you’re a writer, work with a writer’s circle, or have friends who will read your stuff and come to your readings. If you’re an actor, hang out with people who are going to auditions constantly, or who don’t mind reading lines with you, or seeing shows. I think drive can catch fire in the proper incubator, and if you don’t work around people, it can be hard to cultivate these communities. Seek out friends and colleagues who inspire and appreciate the work you do. Now this doesn’t mean abandon your favorite shoot-the-breeze drinking buddies…but maybe don’t meet them for weekday lunches.

Step Three: Make a Space (…but also, take field trips.)

Location, location, location – this is everything for a freelancer. Here’s a hint: though it’s comfy and close by, your bed is not an appropriate work station. YOU WILL KEEP TAKING UNSCHEDULED NAPS. If you need motivation to leave the blanket nest, go shopping for kitschy desk supplies; get your Pinterest on. Paint a wall or face a window. Make vision collages of your heroes or dreams. If you create a work space that is fun and lovely and YOU, you’ll have all the more reason to sit down and really get to work.

But by the same token, I think leaving the house is important for a freelancer, too. Take walks. Splurge on a cute internet cafe once a week, if only to be around other people. And do take advantage of the freedom in your new lifestyle — only, WITHIN REASON. Make yourself wake up early one morning and go to a museum, or a park — just be sure to come home and work right after. And why? Because treats can jumpstart the day, and museums are mad inspiring.

Step Four: Don’t Freak Out.

If you’ve accidentally let a full work day slide by during which the only things you’ve accomplished from the old “To-DO” are “pick up laundry,” “organize pens,” and “make to-do list,” it can be easy to freak out. You’re under deadlines! Your editors will have your head! Should you pull an all-nighter, now? It’s not college anymore, so…no, you shouldn’t. Keep calm. Breathe deeply. Joan Didion once described self-respect as the ability “to assign unanswered letter their proper weight.” Put your failures in perspective, have a nightcap, get some shuteye…then be prepared to attack the next day with all that freelancing verve. You can do it!

The trick to running your own career is having the respect and faith in yourself to take orders and advice from your “driven” side. Just remember, always, that you don’t need to go so easy on You. You’re equal to all the tasks! And once you’re done with a hard day’s work, relish the fact that you aren’t in a suit and tie in an over air-conditioned high-rise. You’re probably home, one way or another.

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