How to Gain Control Over Your Freelancing Life

Freelancing ControlsWhen our lives feel out of our control, it tends to make us anxious, worried, and depressed, and can decrease motivation. We feel as if life is happening to us, and we’re just reacting to what life throws at us. On the other hand, when we feel in control of our time and our careers, we feel confident, motivated, and happy.

The bad news is that the freelance life is all about lack of control. We can’t control how editors will react to our communications, how much work we’ll have and when we’ll get it, when sources will be available for interviews, if and when the editor will come back to us with a major revise, when our work will be printed, how our articles will look once they’re in print, and even how much or when we’ll get paid. To freelance, you have to be ready for anything at any time, and that can bring on a case of major demotivation.

Luckily, even if we can’t control many aspects of the freelancing life, there are ways to gain control over various parts of it so that we get a sense of authority over our careers.

1. Set your morning routine. Instead of sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning and merely reacting to “urgent but not important” tasks all day, such as answering e-mails as they come in, set a definite morning routine. As I mentioned last week, Jenny Cromie of The Productive Muse wrote a great post called “Is Your Morning Routine Ruining Your Productivity”” That should give you some tips to get started.

I find this advice really helpful. I was one of those get-up-and-check-email-all-day people until my coach at The Yoga of Writing retreat in New Mexico gave me a morning yoga practice. Now, I get up and do just 20 minutes or so of yoga poses before heading downstairs to make my tea and get on with the day. Though the yoga practice isn’t work-related, it helps me clear my mind for the day and focus on those tasks that give me the greatest bang for my working buck.

2. Time your day. For one week, keep a time log of your days. This helps you weed out unproductive uses of your time (like reading Blogging Project Runway every day) and gives you a sense of control over how you spend your days.

3. Make a list. Get everything you need to do out of your head and onto paper. This past year I posted an extensive Q&A with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. He recommends doing a mind dump of everything you can think of that you need to do. All those to-dos are cluttering your mind and keeping you from focusing on the most important task at any given moment. Put the first step for each of these to-dos on separate lists for different areas of your life, such as “To Call” for when you’re near the phone, “Errands” for when you’re in the car, and “Computer” for those tasks that need to be done when you’re at your computer. This will help you feel in control of all those little tasks that were previously clogging your brain.

4. Take a shower already! We freelancers joke about working in our jammies, but nothing makes you feel less in control than sitting at a desk unshowered and unbrushed at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Take a shower in the morning and put on some nice but comfortable clothes. If you’re a woman (or a guy, if you’re into it), you can even put on a bit of makeup and some jewelry. This will help you face your work day feeling put together and ready.

5. Revamp your job. Make a list of every task you do in your job, such as setting interviews, researching, and writing queries, and then brainstorm ways to revamp and improve those processes. Then experiment with the new way of doing things to see if they work better. We often do the same things over and over again out of habit, even when they aren’t the best methods, and looking at those habits with a fresh eye will help you come up with ways to improve them. For example, could you schedule your interviews a half hour or 45 minutes apart instead of an hour apart? (This one works for me because I realized that my interviews take under half an hour, but I would schedule them an hour apart “just to be sure” and then sit there twiddling my thumbs for 40 minutes.) Instead of transcribing interviews the way you usually do, could you hire a transcriptionist to do it for you, so you can concentrate on something you’re better at, such as writing queries?

6. Do a blitz. Need work? Don’t wait for it to fall into your lap. You can’t directly control when editors give you assignments, but you can influence how much you get and when you get it by stepping up production in a concentrated blitz. Pitching editors is a numbers game — the more you do it, the more likely you are to have success. Spend a day or two doing nothing but churning out queries, resending old queries to new markets, following up on queries you already sent, and e-mailing letters of introduction.

7. Delegate it. I wrote about this in my recent post “7 More Productivity Hacks for Freelancers.” If there’s something you’re not good at, or that you hate, find someone who does it better and delegate to them. This will give you a sense of control because you’re consciously choosing what you will and will not do in your career.

8. Make a schedule. Instead of doing tasks whenever you think of them or whenever you happen to have free time, which perpetuates a sense of being at the whim of others, schedule important jobs into your day. For example, perhaps you want to send a letter of introduction to an editor every day at 1 pm. Or maybe you schedule interviews only between 9 am and 12 pm every day so you have the rest of the day to research and write.

This is something I need to do. On a typical day I may have interviews at 11 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm. It’s hard for me to concentrate in between interviews because I’m always anticipating the next interview, even when it’s two hours away. Talk about feeling out of control!

9. Set up an admin day. It’s hard to feel in control when you’re spending all day putting out tiny fires as they come up. Designate one day of the week, or certain hours of a day, to clear out administrative tasks like signing contracts, invoicing, copying clips, and filing.

10. Beat the clock. Here’s one from Steve Pavlina’s new book Personal Development for Smart People: “Estimate how long a task will take to complete. Then start a timer, and push yourself to complete it in half that time.” For example, if it normally takes you four hours to write 1,000 words, see if you can write it in two hours instead. It may come out like ass, in which case you can revise — but you may be pleasantly surprised by the quality you can turn out in half your usual time.

What do you do to control your time — and your freelancing career? Post your experiences in the Comments section below! [lf]

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44 comments… add one
  • This is such a relevant post! I’m doing the Muse Online Conference this week, and the first workshop I looked at is titled “Burn Those Bunny Slippers” and gives tips for becoming more productive and professional. Taking a shower is such a big one for me. I have to get two kids ready for school in the morning and spend time with the baby the rest of the day. Oh yeah, and manage to fit in writing. I’m often sitting in my pj’s when my hubby comes home. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll fit it in somehow!

  • I agree — wonderfully relevant post in these trying times (especially for those of us feeling the utter lack of control over dwindling IRAs/investments).

    The info about having appts. through the day is right on — like if I “only” have an hour in between the end a phone interview and when I must leave the house to go volunteer at kids’ school, it’s so easy for me just chuck that time out the window — surfing internet, instead of buckling down and doing something more productive.

    And I am *so* guilty of not taking a shower until I absolutely have to — I’ll work in my workout clothes (from morning fitness class) and sometimes shower at 2:45 before I have to pick kids up from school. Eeeesh. Good thing I work alone – stinky me!

  • wordwych

    Great post, Linda! I’m feeling a bit frazzled at the moment by a big cluster of things I need to get done. I needed a reminder like this to set me straight, encourage me to take a step back, and prioritize and categorize what I need to do. Right now, everything’s just sort of hanging out there in this big nebulous cloud of *stuff* and I’m fighting the temptation to do the Scarlett O’Hara thing and deal with it tomorrow. 😉

  • I am putting this on my list! Yes, get dressed…I even put on rhinestones if I feel like it–a little sparkle never hurts! So what if the UPS man thinks you’re in a different business!

  • Great post! I don’t have any tips for feeling more in control, but I have to say that the number one thing that I feel controls me these days is my RSS reader. I have such a backlog of articles I need/want to read, and that’s how I spend a good portion of my morning. If anyone has any tips for taming their blogroll, I’d love to hear them!

  • Perfect points to make in this crazy market. Thanks for this! Great links as well.

    I just want to add one thing: Instead of trying to be in control, it might help to think of this as “taking charge” instead. Taking charge of your life is very do-able.

    I can see there are a few things I could take charge of myself.

    All my best,

  • These are some great tips – and some I definitely need to work on (as I sit here at 1pm in my pajamas).
    I want this to be my career and I want to be better at it. So, why am I not treating it like any other job I want to be better at? At least I got my office set up properly this weekend finally so i am no longer sitting on the couch in my pajamas working!

  • Great suggestions.

    The added bonus of getting up and walking, yoga or taking a shower first thing is the inspiration that those activities can create – as you, I and other freelance writing bloggers have written before, some of our best ideas pop up during a long walk or a good soak.

    Also, I am a true believer in the power of Microsoft Outlook, or comparable email/calendar/task manager, for organizing to-do lists, plotting hours devoted to specific tasks, etc. I color code activities, dump all my to-do lists – work and personal – onto the Task manager, and even use the Notes section to write notes to myself about things like Christmas decorations, etc.

    Michelle Rafter

  • Thanks for all your comments!

    Jackie, good point…it would help to think of this as “taking charge.”

    Stephanie, I don’t have any suggestions for you on managing your blogroll as I have just a few that I check daily. Can anyone else help?

    It’s good to know that I’m helping make the world a cleaner place through this blog! ;-> And I’m even wearing makeup right now.

  • On different occasions I’ve written posts on how freelancers have the ability to control their income and pick and choose their own jobs. But you hit on some excellent points – on how out-of-control our lives can be. We can’t make someone give us a job, nor can we make someone appreciate our talent, pay us on time, etc.

  • No,no,no…#2 is a terrible idea!

    Reading Blogging Project Runway every day brings much needed useless information about your favorite reality competition program and a general sense of joy that can spill over into everything else you do.

    But then again I might be a bit biased.


  • Hey, Kara — showers before the kids get home from school are highly overrated. 😉

    Seriously, I kinda get a charge out of pounding through work in my workout clothes. I’m comfy, and I’m warm (gotta love athletic socks) and there’s nothing constricting doing anything, well, constricting to my creativity. And then I get a nice, clean break between my work day and time for the family.

    Stephanie, about the RSS feeders: add more categories. It’s easier to prioritize smaller categories. It’s less intimidating and takes less time to roll through a shorter category. It feels great to clear one out completely. And it’s a whooole lot easier to just give up and speed-scroll or dump the less important ones near the bottom, when time is short.

    Now, I gotta go take that shower …

  • Tbone, ha! Don’t you worry…you can rest assured that my husband, our Korean exchange student, all my friends, and I are addicted to Project Runway and all the info we can find about it online.

    Go Leanne!

  • Lila R. Bard

    You guys who are pushing showers off to 3 pm: you’re lightweights. There’s a lot to be said for not bathing. I go for days without showering. It’s a calculated defense tactic designed to maximize time management. When I pick up my kids from school, who’s going to ask this unwashed person if she’s interested in serving on the parent committee? Or ask her to bake cookies? When do-gooders see me coming, they get out of my way. Fast.

    If I go long enough, it even keeps my family from bothering me. I can work at my computer in fetid peace. Doesn’t bother me. Ever notice you can’t smell your own stink? I know I can’t.

    I can’t remember the last time I bathed. On the other hand, I’ve got so many assignments due to my work ethic, who really cares? My husband has long given up.

  • Your advise will work in any aspects of ones life as well as any job for that matter. I enjoyed your writing style. have a good day!

  • Great tips, Linda. Just dusted off my copy of GTD yesterday and spent a good portion of the day filing. Ugh. But it will make my life easier in the long run.

    My tip? Make the bed and clean the coffee pot. It helps me to have these chores out of the way before I get to work. I feel much more organized.


  • Sara Aase

    Thank you for perfectly capturing the spinning-wheels feeling I get when I can’t get a handle on everything I have to do.

    Lists, schedules, and showers are absolutely critical. Sometimes I also turn off email and email alerts, or get away from the computer altogether.

  • Thanks for your comments and suggestions, everyone!

    Lila — ha!

  • This is a fabulously useful post. Thanks for inspiring me to get back on track. Number 4 is my favorite on your list. I already do yoga in the morning, but then I often don’t shower and get dressed until its time to scoop up the kids in the afternoon. Must do better. 😉

  • dedeej

    I just happened onto this site. God does answer prayers. I have been beating myself up about feeling I have no control over my freelancing. I am in a transition mode and it is really leaving me feelin demotivated. I recover easily, but this post opened up with what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  • dedeej

    This has been very helpful. Very helpful. Thanks.

  • Kate T.

    No doubt, there’s certainly a “Zen” quality to being a freelancer. You’ve got to let go, relinquish control, and have faith that you’ll eventually get work and a paycheck. Our fates are largely in the hands of the gods (editors)! Good advice about getting out of your jammmies! I need to follow it more often.

  • Being a freelancer is easier when you feel like someone values your work. A writers’ group can help fill that need!

  • GREAT post. Point #9, “Set up an admin. day” is an especially helpful suggestion I make to writers I life-coach.

    Small “Admin Breaks” — oh, the power of a good filing or phone-call-returning session — can really refresh our mind & energize us physically.

  • As long as you got enough money to pay your bills and run around the world doing whatever it is you want, then freelancing is the best thing in the world. No real obligations, work as much or as little as you want, whenever you want (sort of). It definitely can beat a job if you crave freedom over say structure.

  • Hi there – i have a tip for when you just (because of a tight deadline) have to do those interviews at 11, 1 and 4 Linda (I too find it hard to relax in between – and sometimes you just have to say yes to when the interviewee is available so putting them all in before midday isn’t possible).
    Go for walks in between – helps you destress and kind of ‘incubate’ the information from one interview before the next, you also don’t feel that ‘trapped’ feeling like i’m waiting for a phone technician to show up and you’re in the house all day. You have to be so intensely focussed when you’re interviewing (even if you’re taping it) it’s good for your brain to get some fresh air inbetween too.

    I also like doing long and boring research (searching through online databases for medical studies to print out etc) when i’m watching something light on the TV at night. Neither activity is really enough in itself so this way you don’t feel guilty for watching TV yet also don’t get so frustrated that you’ve spent an hour trawling through search terms!

    Thanks for a great blog and a fantastic book.

  • Great ideas, Louisa!

  • A resounding ‘yes’ to the part about showering and dressing daily. I am also guilty of getting up early to write, but not getting dressed until half the day is gone. At the very least, it’s embarrassing when the neighbors, or other friends, stop by unexpectedly — fully dressed. When I worked for a publisher and for a travel magazine, I always wore nice clothes to work. Now, as a freelancer, when I bother to get dressed — first — I feel better about myself. My attitude informs my writing too. Thanks for a great post. Looking forward to your book.

    • Welcome to the blog, Cindy! And thanks for your comment. It’s funny how freelancers’ default setting (including mine) is to shower after slogging around in pjs half the day. Since I wrote this two years ago I’ve been pretty consistent about showering in the morning instead of waiting, and it feels SO much better.

  • Joan Di Masi

    This is great. I needed to read this. I’m one of those people who do things as they appear in my folder or on my desk. Thanks, Linda, for helping me to realize that I need to get organized and for helping me to know how.

  • I love this article, you touch so many bases that can bog me down. I do a newsletter for the Midwest Children’s Author’s Guild Would you give us permission to do a reprint of all or part of this article? Thanks.

  • Working in my jammies until 3PM would actually be an improvement in my case! Great advice about setting a morning routine and delegating tasks. OK, time to go shower and actually get dressed….

  • Great advice here, thanks for sharing. I’m guilty of jumping on the computer first thing in the morning. I used to workout every morning before getting into my work but as of lately haven’t gotten around to exercise until the evening. Creating a more set schedule is something I aim to implement asap so I don’t feel like I’m wasting so much time anymore.

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