Since I took the leap and turned my freelance writing and editing side hustle into my full time job, the biggest change has been the fact that I am no longer beholden to anyone else’s schedule. Sure, I have client deadlines to meet, but when it comes to deciding when to work and how to structure my time, I’m calling all the shots.
Ninety percent of the time, that’s amazing. I can knock off early on Friday and make up for it with a few hours over the weekend. I can take my dog out in the middle of the afternoon. I can run my errands at two o’clock on Tuesday instead of fighting the crowds on Saturdays.
But other times, honestly, it’s a little overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like my work-life balance has turned into a work-life mess. Sometimes I wish I had colleagues to ask for help when the to-do list gets hairy. Sometimes I go full days without speaking to anyone but my cat and dog. Don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I’m so, so happy working for myself. But sometimes, I think I might go crazy.
I imagine many of you feel the same way as authors. Maybe writing isn’t your full-time job (or maybe it is, in which case, go you), but when you sit down at your desk for hours at a time, working in solitude on this project that is only yours, I bet some of those same feelings—both good and kind of scary—creep up.
Here are three strategies I’ve found to stay on top of things when I’m working solo.
1. Set a Routine, and Be Flexible About It
Writers tend to view routines almost religiously, relying on exactly the same location, equipment, or sequence of events to get them in the right mind-set every time they sit down to write. If this much structure works for you, great. It doesn’t for me. I like a routine; I like to know what to expect throughout the day. But if I set it in stone, it becomes another set of things I have to get done, and that’s the opposite of motivating.
So I follow a routine, but I keep it fairly flexible. I get up sometime between 6:00 and 7:30, depending on what I had going on the evening before, and I take the dog out. Sometimes we play fetch, sometimes we go for a walk, and sometimes we jog. Then, I’ll knock out some work before I stop for breakfast. It could be thirty minutes, or it could be three hours, depending on what my priorities are and how hungry I am. The rest of the day goes the same way. I know I’ll stop to shower at some point, and I know I’ll take a lunch break. But exactly what all that looks like changes every day based on what I’m working on and how in the zone I am. By giving myself that freedom, I can view my daily, routine tasks as opportunities, not obligations.
So give your writing time a little structure, but allow yourself the flexibility to respond to your own needs every day. Chances are, you’ll feel better and be more productive.
2. Break Up Your To-Do List
I don’t know about you, but when I look at a running list of tasks, I tend to freeze up. But if I break that list into chunks—by day of the week and then by time of day—everything starts to look much more manageable. Again, I’m not suggesting scheduling every second of the day (I’ve tried that, and it didn’t go well), but give yourself some rough parameters so you don’t feel like it all has to get done at once.
If you’ve set aside a full day to write, what exactly do you set out to do? If your goal is to “work on your book,” you’ll likely find yourself at a loss as to where to start. But if you break it up into more manageable goals, you’ll find yourself more productive. So try this: Start with a daily goal. Maybe it’s to write a full draft of Chapter 3. Then break it up. In the first part of the morning, you’ll outline the chapter. Before lunchtime, you’ll clear up the characters’ objectives. And in the afternoon, you’ll fill out your draft.
If you turn your infinite to-do list into discrete tasks, you can keep yourself feeling motivated and accomplished by tackling (and crossing off) one item at a time.
3. Give Yourself Breaks
In my first few weeks working from home, I beat myself up about taking breaks that weren’t productive. It was fine if I got up from my desk to switch the laundry or empty the dishwasher, but if I took time over lunch to watch an hour of TV, I felt guilty about it.
But I quickly realized that, if I didn’t give my brain a real break every once in a while, I became sluggish, unfocused, and unhappy at my desk. I ended up wasting more time “pretending” to work than I would have if I’d just allowed myself to check out for an hour and come back refreshed and ready to power on.
So even if your writing time is limited, don’t be afraid to step away when you start to feel fuzzy. Whether you head outside to unplug for thirty minutes or you step into the other room and do twenty jumping jacks, allowing yourself time to recharge will do wonders for your productivity in the long run.
What about you? What are your favorite tricks and strategies for keeping your momentum up while you’re writing?