Having been a full-time freelance writer since 1998, I can assure you that there's a difference between doing a job to your clients' satisfaction and doing a job well and efficiently. My clients tend to be a pretty satisfied lot, but for the better part of two decades, I've worked mornings, nights, weekends, and all points in between. It got to be so common to work constantly that I no longer questioned doing it. The default answer for all questions from family and friends was, "Maybe, but I'm pretty busy." As if I was the only busy guy in the world.
With only one career in hand, I could skate by in this state. But with two careers -- my existing freelance business plus a fledgling career in fiction -- I could no longer ignore the obvious. Whatever I was doing wasn't working well. I was treading water with my commercial clients, keeping roughly the same income level for over five years. My fiction production was erratic and impossibly slow in getting to market. My family still didn't get to see much of me, even though I worked from home. And wasn't that one of my main motivations for being self-employed, in order to be involved and experience my family growing up?
One of the reasons I joined my wife in attending CrossFit lessons two months ago was because I'd heard people talk about how self-discipline with physical health often bled (literally in CrossFit's case) over into other life areas. If I could tackle CrossFit, I reasoned, perhaps I could gain the mental discipline necessary to improve my work processes. Six or seven weeks later, I was over that initial hump of substantial exercise training agony, but nothing seemed to be changing elsewhere for me. Imagine that -- a grown-up has to do the tooth fairy's work. Perhaps magic only strikes when you make it strike.
Habits and Help
While I was waiting for the tooth fairy to visit my daily routine, I came to a sudden if glaringly obvious realization: I have no routine. I went to bed every night knowing what needed to be done the next day, but I had no methodology for tackling the tasks. As a result, many days ended up as if I'd spent the last ten hours chasing my tail in an endless pursuit of email, calls, IMs, social media check-ins, family needs, and everything else. I needed to become a lot more efficient if I was going to make headway in my day job, much less ever see the light of day as a novelist.
Self-improvement coach Tony Robbins always encourages people to ask better questions, so rather than ask a vague question, such as "How can I get more done?" I tried an approach I'd never taken before: "How can I cultivate better work habits?" That question led me to probe the nature of habits, how they form, and how they can be remolded. Before long, I was listening to the audiobook for Charles Duhigg's fascinating The Power of Habit.
I found myself wondering how other successful people go about their days, apply structure to themselves, and use habits to achieve their objectives. I'm not out to reinvent the wheel, after all. I'm in the business of interviewing people, so I started looking for anecdotes and asking around. One of the people I went to was my CrossFit trainer, Chuck Gonzales, owner of the facility I use three times a week and a guy for whom I have ever-increasing respect. Chuck recommended that I subscribe to Success magazine for a steady stream of ideas, and he pointed me to a site called nobrowndays.com.
At first, I was put off by how infomercial-y this site appeared, but I quickly realized that there was very little for sale here. The key concepts all appeared to be given away for free. The main idea is to color-code each day on the annual calendar according to focus in one of four areas: personal time, money making, administration/development, and planning. While each day might involve more than one of these elements, every day should have a primary focus. Sure, you might have to take a sales call on a personal day or go to a kid's band performance on a planning day. But overall, a day should be dedicated to one of these four pursuits and result in a calendar similar to the one shown here.
What do you get when you combine all four colors? Brown. And how would you typify such a day? Pretty crappy, right? You try to do everything and nothing gets done. Bingo. I made my annual calendar and set my quarterly objectives. Most days are green, but I have a lot of yellow on there, too. I have never blocked out so much personal/family time before in my life. It's a little terrifying.
This still left one big question unanswered: How do you execute a green, money-making day efficiently? I had family tasks, day work tasks, fiction tasks, personal communication tasks -- all these different kinds of activities that needed to get done in such a way that they could proceed from regular, predictable cues and form good habits. Wasn't there a daily system for diverse task sets like that applicable to self-employed writers like myself?
Of course, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it for so long. It's called school.
I spent two days ripping apart all of my activities, goals, capabilities, and so on, and I came up with what I think is a sustainable system. To the left, you can see a sample day that balances freelance work and fiction work. One of the things Chuck told me was that his day starts at 5:00 AM. This matches what I've read countless times in interviews with successful authors. I've always dismissed this possibility, because ever since I was old enough not to have a bed time, I've been a night owl. "That's just how I'm wired."
Or is it? Is being a night owl a biological imperative...or a habit? Specifically, is it a habit that's not serving me effectively? One way to find out.
From 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM, my week proceeds in blocks, just like school periods. When do I do email, Facebook, and other similar distracting tidbits? Between periods, just like in school. When class is in session, you sit, focus, and get stuff done. What if a call has to get scheduled for 9:00 rather than the 12:00 where I'd like it to go? Before, such a shuffle invariably threw my morning into a tail-spin. Now, thinking of these things as blocks, all I have to do is switch two items around on my daily calendar. Easy.
And yes, that is a nap you see sitting there at 2:00. My work week schedule only allows for a maximum of seven hours of sleep per night, which is one less than I've found I really need. Tack on the physical demands of CrossFit, and I've learned that I survive far better with a mid-day nap. Laugh all you like, kiddies. Middle-age is coming for you, too.
This all might sound ridiculously obvious, but as a self-employed guy who had to figure everything out by trial and error and with no professional guidance, well...it's a process. I don't pretend to be smart, but I do try to improve over time. This is how I'm going to try things for a while. I'm going to give it my best shot, because, honestly, I don't have any better ideas.
I hope my family and friends understand when I take longer to respond to things. My kids will have to learn that I am effectively not here until 5:00 during the week, and if you're bleeding, you better put a Band-Aid on it yourself. No movies during the week. No late phone calls with friends. No leisurely lunch breaks with my dad. This is all new to me. But if this is what it takes to achieve goals, then let's get going.