Putting the “Work” Back Into “Freelance Worker”

When people find out that I work from home as a freelance writer, one of the most common reactions I get is that they’re envious because not only do I not have to rush out to an office amidst the rat race every day, I must also have some very strong willpower and a great work ethic. Countless people have told me, “I could never work from home. I’m not disciplined enough to do it.”

You know what? I usually wash my dishes by 3 pm and I have a mountain of dirty laundry that could possibly rival K2. I’m definitely not the most disciplined person in the world. I’m notoriously lazy and can easily put things off until they reach critical mass. However, over the time that I’ve been working from home, I’ve developed some habits that help me to stay on track with work and deadlines most of the time. Here are some tips if you’re just starting out and don’t know how to actually make yourself work when you should be.

1. Don’t sleep in indefinitely. One great thing is that I no longer have to get up by 6 am like I used to once upon a time. However, there have been mornings where I’ve been exceptionally tired and have allowed myself to lounge around in bed until 9 or 10 am. Those days are consistently the ones where I have the most trouble getting and staying motivated. That’s when I find myself still hard at work at 11 pm, because I’ve slacked off so much that I have to play catch-up. Working at 11 pm isn’t fun. If I get up and get moving at a decent hour, I’m more likey to be very productive and those are the days I find myself finished with wirk by 2 or 3 pm, leaving me a great deal of time to do things I want to do.

2. The earlier the start, the better. In keeping with the above, if I can get even a little bit of work done very early in the day, I find it has a steamroller effect. When my oldest daughter was in school this year, I had to wake her up at 6:30 in order to leave by 7:30. I found that if I could get just one lone task done for work while she ate breakfast, even if it was a little task, it helped propel me forward. There was something about coming back fro mdropping her off at school and finding something checked off my to-do list before 8 am that was exceptionally motivating. Some days I found myself wrapping up by lunch time, finished for the entire day, just because of one little push early on.

3. Get dressed. Everyone thinks it’s great to work in your pajamas. I find it’s not as wonderful as it sounds. In theory, sure, but in reality I always find that if I get dressed right away, I’m more in a work frame of mind. It doesn’t have to be a suit, just something I would be comfortable wearing out of the house. Pajamas are tied in to relaxing. You don’t want to relax, you want to get your work done.

4. Eat well. It’s far too easy to hit 5 pm and realize you’ve been existing on cookies and ice cream. Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your diet. Eat proper, healthy snacks, and take the time to eat lunch. Your blood sugar will thank you for it and you’ll be better equipped to work.

5. Take your lunch and breaks away from your desk. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you have to chain yourself to your work. When you’ve done some work and need a break, get up. Go for a walk outside, head into another room, do something that is away from whatever you use as a home office. At lunch, resist the temptation to eat at your desk while you do a few things. You deserve to sit at your kitchen table and eat properly. Taking a proper break will make you less resentful about the work you have to do.

6. Sleep like you would if you had an office job. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. just because you don’t have to get up and go anywhere in the morning. If you needed eight hours of sleep when you were in the office, treat yourself the same way. Staying up too late because you don’t feel like you need to worry about it leads to sleeping in the next morning, which brings us full circle to point number one.

What do you do to help you feel more disciplined when you work from home?

Sherry Osborne is a freelance writer from Montreal, Canada who writes at sites like Style Crunch and Geeky Traveller.





30 responses
  1. krista Avatar

    I have a set minimum that I must earn each day, and I make myself stay at my desk until I’ve reached my goal. I keep a runny tally throughout the day to see where I’m at. It prevents me from spending too long on one assignment, and it’s also allowed me to train myself to be more focused. It’s also a nice treat when I’m really efficient and reach my goal by 1 or 2.

    Great article by the way! I agree with everything you said, and I’ve been guilty of all of them at one time or another.

  2. krista Avatar

    Oh, and another thing I like about it is that it allows me to determine whether I’m being compensated fairly by my clients. If it’s 10 o’clock and I’ve only earned $30, that might mean I have to look at asking for a higher rate.

  3. CT Avatar

    That’s a really interesting way to meet a daily goal, Krista. I’m going to have to try that one.

  4. sherry Avatar

    Thanks Krista! I’m definitely guilty of them too. I may be able to write about the things I need to do, but sometimes I still slip away from them and slack off too much, which then leads to cramming at night. Not fun!

  5. Lori Avatar

    Great post. I could really relate to this. I admit the idea of sleeping a little later was really appealing when I first started freelancing, but now I’m up early too.

    One of the best things about my freelance switch is that I am excited to get up and start working. That wasn’t always the case with my office job.

  6. Ann G. Avatar
    Ann G.

    I get up when my husband’s alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. That’s something I’ve always done. And on weekends, even if I promised I wouldn’t work, I generally get up at 6:00 and then work for an hour or two before everyone else rises. I’ll get a load of laundry in the machine and then hang it outside to dry (one of many electricity cut-backs I’m doing.)

    I do try to ensure my computer’s off by 1:00 p.m. to cut back on electricity usage. I’ll do any paperwork for the rest of the afternoon. Once it’s 2:30, I have to go run the afternoon leg of the high school car pool, so I’ll leave early, bring some papers with me to proofread and then sit in the car doing that until the boys are dismissed at 3:15.

    Once I’m home, it’s homework time. Usually, my son doesn’t need any help, but my daughter struggles with the math program they use, so I’ll spend an hour or so helping her before I start with dinner.

    I always follow a set schedule like this. Straying even a little bit gets me off track and it’s a struggle to get back on course once I’ve strayed.

  7. Leigh Avatar

    Great post, Deb! I have been guilty of most of these at one time or another. I recently committed to eating better (lots of steamed veggies, salad, and lean proteins) and exercising more. I’m also trying to stay on a schedule of sleeping from 10:30 to 6:30 and then getting up and going for a walk in the park before I work. That kind of unraveled this morning, as I received two middle-of-the-night phone calls at 1:30 and 4:30 (no, they weren’t emergencies, and yes, I’m hopping mad) – I couldn’t fall back asleep until around 3 after the first one, and then I got the second one. I ended up not waking up until almost 10:00 and now I am behind in everything I wanted to accomplish today.

  8. Ed Avatar

    The key is no matter where you work, it is a job. As such, freelance writing should be approached just like any other employment, including routine and preparation. But being your own boss means you have to be doubly conscious of not slacking-off; there is no one standing over you to make sure.

    As a parent, waking up at 6am has become an ingrained start of the day. It literally pays to be working early. The old maxim “the early bird catches the worm” didn’t become an old saying without holding much truth. Remember: you are competing against people in other time-zones. The person in the UK may have snagged the good offers by the time you roll out of bed at 9am on the East Coast.

    Secondly, dress for success. Pajamas a fun, but they don’t foster a work ethic in you or the people around you, who view freelancing as just another word for “unemployed.”

    Your desk may be in the kitchen or bedroom, but it is your workspace – treat it as such and you will gain enthusiasm when you sit down before your computer. Maybe more importantly, friends and family will see you working and treat those times as ‘Mommy’s at work; don’t bother her now’ or ‘honey, when you have a moment, can you do something for me’ – rather than ‘oh, you must be free, you’re just hanging out.’

    Just some tips from a professional freelancer since the ’90s.

  9. Andrea_R Avatar

    This is really excellent, there’s a lot of great advice here. I’ve been working from home since last November, and I still need to fix some of my bad habits.

    For starters, I should get dressed. 😉

  10. Phil Avatar

    If you need a reason to get up early, sign up for a college class. I was working 2-10 as a sportswriter and basically doing nothing before going to work 25 years ago when I signed up for an 8 a.m. accounting class just to get my butt out of bed. That and subsequent accounting classes (four more, one a term) were invaluable in being able to run my own business, even though that wasn’t the prime consideration at the time.

    The classes also helped convince editors I could do more than be a sportswriter (moved to education, then transportation, then business before leaving the paper).

  11. Kathleen Avatar

    To me, one of the big perks of freelance work is that I don’t have to get dressed. Since I am ill so often, I frequently end up working from my bed. I do, however, have some very nice pajamas. 🙂

    I have to heartily agree about eating well though. Often I find that I just am not hungry or don’t have the energy to fix a meal. This just leads to me feeling worse by the end of the day. While I am able to work when I am sick (usually), I certainly accomplish more when I eat right.

    Great article. 🙂

  12. Amber Avatar

    Great tips! Lately, I find myself needing some motivation and energy also. Any tips for that?

  13. Sue Avatar

    This is a good post, but I don’t agree with any of it. One of the most beautiful things about freelancing is being able to schedule your work day around your lifestyle and your body clock. This post assumes that all writers work the same or should work the same. And we don’t.

    Just because I like to keep unconventional hours doesn’t mean I don’t keep regular hours or approach my day professionally or that I’m not successful. I found what worked for me.

    Like I said, your post is good and it’s great that your suggestions work for you. But the post turned me off with the feeling that tone of “this is how I do it; therefore, it is the only way.”

  14. Chris Avatar

    Very good post and advice. I’d offer a different take on the whole getting up early thing–I am definitively not a morning person and when I worked in an office there were many days where I’d just drag because of having to wake up earlier than I really wanted to. Since I’ve been freelancing, I’ve allowed myself to sleep in without setting an alarm. There are definitely some days when I sleep in much too late (10 or 11) and it hinders my day, but generally I try to be up by 8:30-9:30. I am well-rested and ready to start the day and I feel that this helps my production. If I were to force myself to wake up at 6 or 7, I just know that I would be tired and have trouble focusing at least for the first few hours.

    Not being a morning person correlates to being more of a night person–I feel that I am more awake and productive in the evening and late night than I would ever be in the early morning, so many times I’ll work until 12 or 1 AM, without an issue. I guess this wouldn’t work for most people, but one of the real advantages of freelancing is being able to set your own schedule and work when you are most productive. I think this is more important than getting up early, but a regular schedule is definitely the way to go.

  15. hana Avatar

    Eating well – that’s something I always forget. Sometimes I exist on chocolate and Doritos until it’s dinnertime. So bad!

  16. Amy Avatar

    Sherry, although I enjoyed reading this I can’t say very many of these things apply to me. To be quite frank, none of them do. As Sue said above, I too am happy that these tips work for you. I used to try to get up earlier, go to bed earlier, and it’s just not for me. The earlier I get up, the less productive I am. I don’t get dressed up. I’m more productive working in comfort. In fact, I usually work from my bed unless I’m working remotely from another location outside my home. I also don’t eat lunch. I’ve tried stopping to eat during the day, and it just slows me down. I do much better eating a meal at 4 or 5pm, as a combo lunch/dinner. So while I agree that these tips might help some people, they’re certainly not the only way. 🙂

  17. Lisa Avatar

    Hi everyone! I’m new to this website and new to freelancing (in fact, I’d say I’m still on the edge of the cliff, steeling myself for the jump). All of these suggestions are good, and eerily reminiscent of the suggestions I got when I was trying to write my dissertation. I wasn’t the best self-motivator, but I’m really hoping that the knowledge that there’s a paycheck at the end of the work will keep me on task.

  18. Chris Avatar

    @Sue–good points and I completely agree. I think the post is probably very accurate for the author and many writers, but I think it is more important to set a schedule that works for you and then stick to that. It doesn’t necessarily mean rising with the sun for some of us. When I began freelancing, I quickly realized that I would need to set a schedule, but have never felt like it needed to be a conventional 9-5 or 7-3, I definitely feel that it’s more important to focus on the hours that work best for you, while still maintaining a regular schedule.
    @ Ed, that’s an interesting take on the “early bird gets the worm”. I have often worried that this is an issue, since I am in Mountain Time in a East Time dominated country. I never even thought about UK or anywhere else. I tend to avoid applying for those jobs that seem to need someone that day or begin right away. I think for many jobs, there is a screening process that doesn’t necessarily get completed the same day or same week in some cases and I hope that most jobs are more about the writing and candidate than timing.

  19. Roxie Avatar

    @Leigh, @Kathleen, and @everyone else… my big tip with eating healthy (As a dancer of over 10 years and a self-described health nut) is: EAT EVERY THREE HOURS. It doesn’t have to be an entire meal… it could be an apple or ten almonds, anything… just put SOMETHING in your mouth every three hours, because it keeps your energy and metabolism up. Your blood sugar rises and falls in about three hour cycles, and when it falls, your body thinks “Where is the food? Let’s eat some muscle.” That is why bodybuilders, figure models, and dancers usually try to eat throughout the day, because if you eat (and drink water) regularly, you never give your blood sugar a chance to drop very low, and you a) never get hungry, and b) maintain muscle mass.

    When I first start doing this years ago, I instantly started looking skinnier, and when someone commented on it, I said “No way, I’m eating all the time!” And the person responded “Exactly!” If you don’t already do it, try it – you’re energy levels will be higher, and you’ll feel thinner, it’s like magic (I know that sounds a little corny, but it is! Lol).

    *Oh, and keep the water intake way up. I have a big 64 oz. bottle next to my desk and drink from it throughout the day, or I shoot for say, 5 bottles of water per/day. But I try to get in another 8+ oz or so for every cup of coffee and for every hour of exercise, because that is what the body needs. Granted, you’ll run to the bathroom more often… but almost every system in your body is regulated by the flow of water – not to mention the rays of the computer screen can dry out your skin – so drink up!

    Here’s to a healthy freelance life. Cheers! 😉

  20. Cara Avatar

    I know that for me personally I hate mornings. I dislike getting up before 10. Since having kids 5 years ago I gave up on 10, but I refuse to get up before 8 unless there is a REALLY good reason (doctor appt, house on fire, emergency, etc). With that in mind, I work significantly better in the evenings. Many times I will stay up until 3-4 in the morning working. While there are times when I want to go to bed earlier, I just lay there and can’t fall asleep until the later hours. I stopped fighting it long ago and now just adapt to my internal schedule. Mornings are left for leads, school time with the kids (whom I homeschool) and playing around doing just about anything that I want. Work comes in the afternoon and evenings for me.

  21. Kristen King Avatar

    Sherry, this post was so right-on-the-nose that I’m wondering if maybe you were secretly following me around for a few weeks before writing it. 🙂 Great job, and thanks for the practical advice.


  22. hana Avatar

    Good advice, Roxie. I have good intentions – I keep a food journal, I try not to OD on junk food, I exercise. Sometimes I can’t drag away myself from the computer and have to read 1 more email. 🙂

  23. Erik Hare Avatar

    I write my to-do list for the next day before turning in. That way, when I wake up, I know why I have to wake up, since I remember most of it. Sometimes, it gives me a chill of terror, but it does get me out of bed early. I often respond to e-mail or generally write before 8 AM just to get myself going with something.

  24. monica Avatar

    You’re advice about sleeping is so right on (this I write at 5:45am!). I get my best work done in the mornings, between about 6 and 9. Then I go to the gym (which is nice is quiet as everyone has gone off to work!).

    As far as eating goes, one trap I often fall into is making elaborate lunches. I love to cook (oh if I were only a food writer!) but this can take out a huge chunk of my day. I need to be disciplined and remind myself that I can wait until dinner for a cooking extravaganza. This is where having leftovers on hand is good.

    11 minutes to 6am… I better start working.

  25. Victoria Trix Avatar

    Excellent post! I have found that I need to follow a similar routine to be able to be the most productive although I am still guilty of spending the day in my PJ’s at least they are clean PJ’s =)

  26. Jaq Avatar

    I wake up at 6 or 7 in the morning and take a shower immediately to wake myself up so that I’d be fully alert when I start my work. That helps because by lunch time, I’ve already done almost all of my work for the day.

  27. Kathryn Avatar

    One of the avenues I have pursued with my freelance writing is grants writing. I have found that getting up and getting dressed each morning prepares me for those unexpected calls to meet for lunch or to discuss a project. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t get dressed in a suit or anything. Instead, I dress like I would if I was going to my sons’ ballgames or to a class at the church – nice, but not over the top. The added benefit is that I look good for my husband (who can get tired of seeing the baggy sweats and t-shirt all the time). 😀

  28. Ivan Avatar

    Liked the post. Although I do work for a company, but it’s writing, and a flex schedule, that do make me sometimes wary of doing anything.

    It’s interesting to note that I think the Author’s Type, say Type 1, is closer to more mature (aged) people, at least it is very true for me: when I was younger and still had to set my own schedule (at different schools while I was getting my 2 MAs and a PhD), I could be pretty lax (say, Type 2, who enjoy late and relaxed style).

    Now with a kid and family and health alarms, it is totally destructive not to adhere to strict rules. To this end, I would include NO PARTYING, GOING OUT, or CELEBRATING during the work week. ))

  29. Ed Avatar

    Ivan: I agree with your rules about no partying, etc. during the work week. (And it is a “work” week, despite no time-clock or boss.) The quicker people understand freelancing is far harder work than traditional jobs, the sooner is understood a work-style regimen must be maintained. As often is remarked, it is much more difficult having yourself as your boss.

    I also think having kids and a family is good training for effective freelancing. Not only do you realize the joys of a routine, but you become adept at prioritization and doing things that might be unpleasant, such as changing diapers or telling your teen daughter she cannot have the keys tonight. 😉

  30. mspennylane Avatar

    Great tips. I am glad to see that it is possible to be disorganized in some ways but become more organized when it comes to writing. Working in the morning is definitely something that motivates me too. Great advice!

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