Make it Work

The Most Important Skill for Successful Freelancing (Hint: It Isn’t Writing)

By Jessica Adamiak February 14th, 2013

“A ritual, consciously created, is an expression of fierce intentionality.” — Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy

If you don’t possess enough energy or resolve to write, then your talent and clever story ideas simply don’t matter — and your freelance career will stagnate.

In a 1996 experiment, psychologist Roy Baumeister discovered that subjects who spent energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie had less energy left over to tackle a difficult puzzle than their cookie-munching counterparts. Will and discipline, he realized, deteriorate over the course of the day with each mental effort we exert, from resisting warm and gooey baked goods to making everyday decisions.

So what does “ego depletion” mean for freelancers, who tend to make more daily choices than the average worker bee?

From the moment the alarm clock sounds, your reservoir of mental energy is under siege. Each seemingly innocuous decision — Work at the kitchen table or the coffee shop? Order a burrito or General Tso’s chicken  for lunch? — diverts brain power (and time) from your most important projects.

The most successful freelancers, however, fight back against this phenomenon by adopting steadfast rituals that eliminate energy-sucking choices from their workflow, and you can too.

1. Observe

To uncover frequent, unnecessary decisions that might be holding you back, track your behavior for one week. You’ll probably find you’re grappling with typical freelance conundrums, such as when to work.

“It’s about making myself accountable to somebody more than writing at the same arbitrary time every day.”

A few months after leaving a staff job at Allure magazine to become a free agent, Portland-based writer Sarah Z. Wexler noticed her new flexible schedule made it difficult to pick a time to sit down and, you know, write. “Even a 300-word blog post would fill up 10 hours — nothing ever got done. I realized I needed some sort of plan,” she said.

So Wexler adopted a new habit: implementing artificial deadlines that take the guesswork out of when to buckle down. “For me, it’s about making myself accountable to somebody more than writing at the same arbitrary time every day. I set up plans with friends when I have big things due, and that way I have an automatic time frame to work within. For example, if happy hour drinks are at 5:30, that means I have until 4 or so to work on a story — and then it has to be done.”

2. Automate

Not even the leader of the free world is immune to ego depletion. In an October 2012 Vanity Fair interview, President Obama alluded to Baumeister’s research and said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits … I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Getting rid of small choices can make a big difference.

Chances are your daily grind is less intense than the commander-in-chief’s. But getting rid of small choices can still make a big difference. Take another issue that plagues freelancers: settling on what to work on each day, especially when juggling multiple projects and concurrent deadlines.

Toddi Gutner, an independent journalist and communication strategist, eliminates this question by holding a meeting with herself at the beginning of each week. “Every Sunday, I look at my schedule and assess my upcoming workload. If I have time gaps, I schedule time to actively reach out to market for additional articles, projects or clients.”

By bundling several decisions into one single chunk of time, Gutner knows what she’s going to work on as soon as her day begins.

3. Commit

Anyone who’s jumped on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon knows it isn’t easy to imprint new habits on your brain. The process takes time, and you will mess up, but a few tips can help you stick with it:

    • Personalize. Make sure the ritual jibes with your actual life and personality. For example, Gutner prefers to handwrite her schedule and cross out finished assignments with a real pen instead of typing it out on her iPhone calendar.
    • Trust in science. In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg points out that habits, both good and bad, emerge because “the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.” So take comfort in your mind’s intrinsic laziness: once you practice a behavior enough, it will become automatic. (Various studies indicate this occurs anywhere between 21 to 66 days.)
    • Give and get support. A couple times each month, Wexler catches up on Google Hangouts with three friends (and fellow freelancers) scattered around the country. “It’s half networking stuff and half mental health,” she says. “We’ll do things like swap ideas or remind each other that quarterly taxes are due, but we also just empathize with each other’s plight. I think it’s helpful to talk to people who know exactly what you’re going through.”
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