How to Maintain Your Sanity (and Be Productive) When You Work Alone

Artwork by Maria Tiurinam

I am a huge advocate of having a room of one’s own. But it’s not healthy to spend too much time in the confines of your own mind. Or, for that matter, alone in your home office.

For the past two and a half years I’ve been working on my own, and in the process, I’ve found that a few tweaks were necessary in order to avoid going crazy. A shortlist of freelance ideas for staying sane:

1. Set your intention for tomorrow tonite. Freelancers have more bleed between work and life than anyone else, and that means unlimited opportunities for screwing around all day, every day—whether it’s playing video games, doing household chores, or deciding it’s the perfect time to re-organize your record collection. When you work amidst this minefield of distraction, nothing is more important than starting your day with clarity about what you want to accomplish. That’s why I recommend making tomorrow’s to-do list tonite. When you wake up crystal clear on your priorities for the day, you have no excuse to waste time or get side-tracked. It also gives your brain time to subconsciously work on tomorrow’s problems while you sleep.

2. Create a “shut-down” ritual to close out your workday. The flipside of the work-from-home challenge is that you can never truly leave the office behind. But if you want to stay motivated to tackle that to-do list we just talked about, you need some hard edges in your day. Aside from trying to set a consistent start time for your workday, I like Cal Newport’s idea of creating a “shut-down ritual” to acknowledge the end of the workday and psychically unplug from your professional responsibilities. (However, I do not think that you need to talk to yourself like a robot and say “shutdown complete” as he recommends.)

Freelancers have more bleed between work and life than anyone else, and that means unlimited opportunities for screwing around all day, every day.

3. Put on your work costume. What you wear has a huge impact on your outlook. (If you don’t believe me, check out this fascinating episode of the Invisibilia podcast.) For example, I find that I am much more productive when I wear shoes in my home office. As Seth Godin put it in an interview I did with him for Manage Your Day-to-Day, “There are many ways that you can signify to yourself that you are doing your [artistic] practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place—in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art. The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important.”

4. Schedule regular playdates. Regular facetime is important for everyone, even if you’re an introvert as I am. It helps you cross-pollinate ideas, build your network, and get out of your own bubble. Different people need different levels of social interaction, but I try to make a habit of setting up at least 2-3 lunches and/or co-working dates per week to meet up with folks in my professional network. I’ll never cease to be surprised at how much more rapidly my thinking evolves when I share my ideas out loud, rather than debating them inside the confines of my own mind. To use a gross metaphor: It’s never a good idea to marinade for too long in your own juices.

5. Don’t deal with social media in real-time. Speaking of social interactions, social media is not a substitute! When you’re sitting home alone all day, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into social media by telling yourself it’s necessary to keep up your professional profile. While that may be true, following the covfefe kerfluffle in real time on Twitter is probably not going to contribute greatly to your professional goals. To avoid this trap, I highly recommend using an app like Buffer to schedule Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook updates days or weeks in advance. That way, you’ve got your social media “upkeep” covered in advance, and can feel comfortable ignoring it when you need to focus.

Artwork by Maria Tiurinam.

6. Find an accountability partner. Gretchen Rubin believes that we all have different tendencies for how we set goals and stick to habits. And that most of us fall into the personality archetype of the “Obliger,” which means we’re good at finishing tasks when we have an external deadline (i.e. one that someone else sets) and bad at finishing tasks when we have an internal deadline (i.e. one that you set for yourself). That’s why creating external accountability is hugely important when you’re working on your own. You can do this in a million different ways: Hiring a life coach to keep you on track, making an accountability pact with a friend who’s good at getting sh*t done, putting money on the line with an app like Stikk, or announcing your intentions publicly. Remember: Deadlines are the freelancer’s best friend.

7. Always keep some “rote work” at the ready. Some days you’re not at the top of your game, and you just don’t have the energy or focus to tackle the bigger creative tasks on your to-do list. I keep a separate list of necessary (but boring) rote work tasks at the ready for just these occasions. Then, I can shift gears seamlessly and continue working on tasks that I need to get done — just the less challenging ones — rather than accomplishing nothing because I’m beating myself up for not being in tip-top shape. You can find more on this idea of “cascading projects” here.

8. Set aside designated “lazy time.” When your workspace is immediately at hand, it can be hard to relax even after you’ve knocked off for the day—or even when you’re just taking a break to rest and refuel. To avoid this, consider explicitly setting aside “lazy time,” or downtime, in your schedule in addition to designating hard start and stop times for your workday. Finding time to truly relax and reflect is as important as finding time to focus and execute on your ideas. They are the yin and yang of the creative process — you can’t have one without the other.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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