Are you an independent creative professional stuck in a rut? Here’s how to kick the freelance funk.
It starts small with one unproductive day when you should be hard at work on your lengthy to-do list. The hours tick by while you accomplish little more than staring at your Facebook feed and eating too many snacks. You move today’s to-do list items to the next day. Tomorrow will be better and it’ll be easier to focus, you tell yourself.
But then it’s not. As deadlines close in and the guilt swells, you manage to eek out the work that absolutely must be done, but you just can’t get into the zone. You’re barely keeping up, and you’re certainly not looking ahead.
You’re stuck in a rut.
I know the feeling. In fact, the cruel irony is that while I write this I’m stuck in a mini-rut myself. I pitched this blog post assignment during a crunch time when a quickly approaching vacation provided just enough pressure to keep me on task. But now that my vacation is over, things are a bit slower and that pressure — a procrastinator’s frenemy — has eased. So, what’s a freelancer to do?
With two-plus years of freelancing under my belt, this isn’t the first time I’ve been stuck in a rut. Luckily, I’ve always managed to climb out and find the necessary motivation. Depending on the situation, some tricks get the job done better than others. With that in mind, here are some tactics that have helped me get my freelance mojo back.
Take a break
I usually map out my week on Monday morning and break down what I need to accomplish each day. But sometimes I fail to focus on that task, which leads me to fall behind. For instance, I’ll find myself surfing the web, hoping to find inspiration. That approach rarely works. So now I’ve started giving myself permission to do something that may sound counterintuitive: I take some time to myself. I use the break to do something productive that’s non-work-related — finish the laundry, run an errand, prep dinner — so I still feel a sense of accomplishment from using my time wisely. I’m often able to use that momentum to refocus after the break.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
When I’m having trouble getting started on a particular project (or any project), I often turn to the Pomodoro Technique. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:
- Choose a task to be accomplished.
- Set a timer to 25 minutes. (The “Pomodoro” is the name of the branded timer, which you can purchase, but I just use my phone timer.)
- Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings.
- Take a five-minute break.
- For every four Pomodoros you complete, take a longer break.
This method works because it transforms an overwhelming task (finishing a monster project) into a manageable one (work for 25 minutes). More often than not, that small chunk of time is all I need to sink my teeth into a project. And once I get rolling, I can usually get a lot done with just a few Pomodoros. Then I can ride that wave of accomplishment to start on something else. I’ve never been one to write for hours in one sitting anyway, so this gives me permission to operate the way I work best with some discipline baked in.
Remember that lost time = lost money
When I become lax about getting work done or seeking new projects, reviewing the spreadsheet I use to track projects and invoices can be enlightening. If I have a lot of projects in the works, it reminds me just how much I must accomplish, which can provide the kick in the pants I need. Plus, it’s helpful to be reminded of the money I’ll earn the quicker I get the work done. If there’s little work in the pipeline, it can motivate me to finish the assignments I do have so there’s time for quick-turnaround assignments that hopefully come my way.
Forego the familiar when you're stuck in a rut
I was an editor at a design magazine for 16 years, so the bulk of my work revolves around design and creativity. While it’s nice that my bread and butter comes from familiar territory, I can become fatigued from the same types of assignments over and over. I find that occasionally pursuing a project or two outside of my niche gives me just enough variety in my workload.
Find a new place to work
I’m usually content to work from home during the hours my kids are at school. I tend to be an introvert who likes quiet surroundings. But several months ago I tried to work at a local coffee shop for a few hours each afternoon. I was surprised at how productive I was thanks to a change of environment and the absence of the distractions of home. If you find yourself stuck in a rut frequently, maybe it’s time to change up the scenery by giving a coffee shop or coworking space a try. You might even pursue a temporary on-site gig.
Take time off
Taking a vacation, whether it’s to travel or spend time with family at home, has kept me from staying stuck in a rut. The time off helps me recharge, but just as important, having a break on the calendar gives me something to look forward to. According to Forbes, research by the U.S. Travel Association shows that taking time off increases productivity and boosts health. If you haven’t taken a vacation in a while, get into the habit of scheduling one every six months or so. If you can’t afford to take a chunk of time out all at once, try integrating a series of long weekends into your schedule.
Research shows exercise not only gets your blood pumping, but can also get your creative juices flowing. If your productivity tanks around a particular time of day, rather than turning on the TV or napping, take a short walk, hit the gym or do an exercise video. It may give you the burst of energy you need to make the most of the next few hours.
Show your social side
If you freelance from home, it’s easy to hole up for days on end. For me, this results in some highly productive stretches followed by a big fizzle. Scheduling a weekly lunch date with an old coworker or fellow freelancer helps energize me. It also gives me a chance to commiserate, get support, share ideas — and sometimes secure new work. And in the case of connecting with old colleagues, it can be a nice reminder that, for me, the grass is greener on the freelance side of the fence.
Add some structure
If you consider not being constrained to a 9-to-5 schedule a freelance perk, you may be in for a rude awaking. Having the flexibility to put in extra hours when there’s extra work (or during the time of day when you’re most creative) is a plus. But sitting at your desk at all hours of the day and night will eventually backfire. Putting some parameters on your work vs. non-work time may motivate you to be more efficient and give you better work/life balance. Having young kids automatically sets these boundaries for me, and I know I’d be even more prone to procrastination without them.
If you’ve tried everything and still find yourself stuck in a rut, it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate your career. Ask yourself some tough questions. For instance, are your career plans still progressing in the right direction? Can you make a pivot that would help you be happier or more successful? Are you truly stretching and growing your skills?
It’s easy to keep traveling down the same well-worn path simply because the terrain is familiar. But if you find yourself stuck in a rut, you may want to correct your course. I did this a year into my freelance career when I cut ties with my first, biggest and most steady client.
The job was wearing on me, and the hourly rate wasn’t as high as some of the other projects I had added to my roster since leaving my full-time job. Plus, I was finding that the new work energized me more. It was a revelation that took my business in a new and exciting direction.
We all hit slumps, so remember that it’s normal and don’t beat yourself up. If you do find yourself stuck in a rut, I encourage you to try a few of these tactics. If it doesn’t work, do something else. The important thing is to keep trying to fight the funk.
And if you have your own great tip, please share it here so I can add it to my toolkit.
Sarah Whitman is a freelance writer and editor specializing in graphic design, career advice and healthcare.