Structuring My Week Changed My Freelancing Mindset
When seeking work as a freelancer, I structured my week to prioritize creativity and mental health.
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
This article was originally published on The Ascent on February 17, 2021.
Instead of setting goals, I’ve been accomplishing structure.
On January 1st of this year, I took an important note from at least a handful of folks on my social media feeds and decided that I would not begin 2021 with lofty goals over which I had no control.
I’ve always considered myself ambitious — when left without structure, I fill my days with micro-challenges and give into a healthy sense of restlessness. Because of this eagerness to constantly be doing something productive or new or out of the norm, 2020 hit me in a weak spot I’d always known I had but had never faced.
My creativity thrives within structure. Without it, the lack of control around time, access to material and people, or automatic feedback have all left me exhausted and scared. The ideas swirling around in my head have no practiced place to land outside of academic assignments, external deadlines, freelance clients, or project proposals.
I ran a podcast until the class for which I was producing it concluded. My YouTube channel sits dormant, the last video sporting a publishing date of mid-summer, 2020.
The book I released in July is something I am wildly proud of, but the idea of starting that process again without being able to conduct interviews in person makes me want to make a decaf latté and take a nap on the couch rather than reach out to interesting people.
My therapist agrees with my decision to forgo the annual self-help list of to-dos many of us make and break annually. She says that a day-to-day approach may serve me better than envisioning where I’ll be in December and possibly getting swept aside by another global catastrophe.
She thinks taking my days one at a time may be the key to unlocking the terror that has frozen my maker-mind still. I agree.
Productivity Is Not My Purpose
We talk biweekly over Zoom. At first, I was skeptical about whether our meetings would be as valuable as my in-person counseling sessions had been when my partner and I still lived in DC, but my therapist has proven to be a comforting mini-structure amidst all the open hours of my days.
I can plan my freelancing hours around our meetings and she always asks me what I’d like to focus on in any given week. She doesn’t make me feel like my flailing without structure is a fault and allows me the space to birth or destroy new ideas in the safety of my own Tennessee studio.
Sometimes I still get overwhelmed by the idea of waiting until August to start another academic program that will fill my days with tasks. When my eyes well up, she waits patiently for me to regain control of my breath and walks me through the ways I am supporting my family and friends while reminding me that, especially at this time, productivity is not my purpose.
Acknowledging that I am not a failure for not finding work in a recession or in needing to take time to figure out how to write and produce for myself was the first major step in the resuscitation of my creativity.
The second step was building structure into my days and believing in myself as the owner of my business and the boss of my own company. External deadlines, even while in school, have always only mattered because I decided to accept that they mattered.
I wanted to avoid the consequences of disagreeing to partake in that norm. Now, I have to make my hours and recognize my consequences. When I fail my deadlines, I am being a bad employee to myself.
Time-Blocking and Starting a No-Buy Mitigated Pressure
So many people have lost work or have had their hours sliced due to COVID-19. I was in that group that had hours cut, to the detriment of my daily routine and my savings account. Those two things were the first that needed to be revived, or at least revisited, for me to get back into a flow that felt good.
My therapist and I designed a time-blocking schedule with a consistent morning and evening routine that helped me feel human again. In addition to this purposeful shift in my days, I started a year-long no-buy challenge.
This, in simple terms, means I will not purchase any unnecessary items outside of gifts for others, items for my friend’s wedding, and fun foods to experiment with while my partner and I learn to cook. If something breaks, I can replace it. If I can find a high-quality replacement second-hand, I will prioritize that purchase over buying the object new.
Making these two decisions calmed me in a way I did not think was possible. I am not calling my no-buy year a goal because I’ve purposefully budgeted for failure.
The point isn’t to have a rah-rah moment in December where I add up all the change I saved from skipping Starbucks. This challenge is coming from a needed change in my spending habits now that I no longer have a full-time job.
A goal is something I can give up. A structure is something I can expand upon and prosper within if I am both deliberate and generous with myself.
Instead of saying I want a part-time job by March and stable income from freelancing by the end of the year, I have blocked time to focus on submitting applications for work and seeking new clients on Mondays.
On Tuesdays, I research for creative projects, like writing this article and contacting prospective subjects for future essays or films. Wednesdays and Thursdays have time blocked for actually doing the work necessary to maintain my current clients and keep all my social media platforms as up-to-date as I can manage in any given week.
Fridays are reserved for inspiration and surprise projects. I have gifted myself the ease of taking life one day at a time.
I Work Fewer Hours and More Gets Done
After setting these wider structures in my week and setting rules to avoid added expenses, I determined what I wanted most out of my mornings and my evenings.
My alarm is set for 7:30 am in the hopes that I’ll be out of bed by 8 am and, while I used to try to convince myself to exercise first thing in the morning, I know I get the most out of my morning when I get to use the first couple of hours reading and attempting some mindfulness.
Eliminating my internal argument over whether or not I should run or do some ridiculous HIIT workout at 8 am made me love my mornings again. I can make coffee and toast, chat with my husband while he scrolls on Twitter, and disappear into well-researched articles about love, history, or the inner workings of the human ear until 10 am.
When I worked in an office, it was difficult to get any quality work done before this time. When designing my ideal week, this was the first change I made.
At 10 am, I dive into whatever I need to do for the day, awake and inspired by the things I’ve read. The articles help me remember how much is going on outside my life and the slowness of my mornings help me to feel more present within them.
I try to get to a stopping point in my work to eat lunch with my partner, and then work more until my body feels restless and craves exercise around 3 or 4 o’clock. I give myself an hour to be in my body, pushing for growth on active days or stretching for recovery on rest days.
Before structuring my week, I rarely took a rest day. This was largely due to the go-go-go mindset that I’ve worked hard to leave in 2020.
My evenings are for cooking, woodworking, or watching television and movies with my partner, drafting an article if an idea strikes, and cuddling with my dogs. I am at my best in freelancing with a 25-hour workweek. Being alone with myself and my internalized pressure past this amount of time would squish my creativity into a tiny stress ball all over again.
This Structure Has Brought Me Hope Again
Since organizing my life this way, I have gained two new freelancing clients and am negotiating with four more. I have time to write and to read. I expect my copy editing work to pick up towards the end of February, and have the hours leftover to fit that seamlessly into my day.
Not everyone’s weeks can look like mine, but I built this structure out of necessity and it suits where the opportunities and my capabilities collide at this time.
Had my therapist not convinced me that productivity wasn’t my purpose, I would be applying to full-time work for 40 hours a week and then trying to squeeze existing clients into the rest of my waking hours. That would not be fair to my employer, my clients, or to myself.
Structuring my week in this way, focusing on enjoying a single day at a time, and recognizing how my shopping habits were adding pressure to my output have all been small steps that have changed my freelancing mindset and helped me reclaim my year.
What can you do to reclaim your year?
Even those working full-time may feel stuck in a rut during this time. Whether you’re exhausted after long workdays in front of a screen and in dire need of inspiration or, like me, you’re tackling too much time and not enough executive functioning without deadlines, these steps are worth trying out.
What goals did you set this January that may be worth throwing out the window? Rather than setting yourself up for disappointment, change your mindset to a daily approach that prioritizes mindfulness and pleasure in both your workday and in your creative time.
Begin to view yourself as your own boss, the supervisor of all your time, while also recognizing that you do not exist on this planet solely to crank out content or clock in a certain number of working hours. Respect your deadlines while also acknowledging your energy levels and mental health.
Create small tasks that you don’t mind (or, even better, enjoy) doing daily that will help you reach larger working targets. My time blocking, as an example, helped me recognize that I needed to carve out time to read in the morning in order to be a better writer throughout the rest of the day.
Consider blocking entire days for a large task or two rather than hitting on all of your projects every day. This may help prevent creativity burnout by attempting to multitask and will help you feel more accomplished each day.
Recognize your stressors and actively challenge yourself to acknowledge them, forgive yourself for them, and plan a productive response. My no-buy idea has pushed me to view spending differently. I feel as though I have power over my finances again, even with less income.
Gift yourself time to make room for comfort and hope. There is so little we can control. Even prior to this pandemic, we could only act in our best interests and hope for positive outcomes. Structuring my week changed my freelancing mindset to keep this truth in perspective.
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