Structure is something you don’t realize you miss until you no longer have it. In an office environment, you think of structure as binding and restrictive. And once you’re out, free to do whatever you want with any hour of your day, it’s difficult to know where to start.
I’ve always been exceptionally particular when it comes to structuring my days. I plan every last hour. I make to-do lists, schedules, and then I combine the two and rework them. My need for structure, I assume, stems for the fact that I’m a very anxious person. Somehow, if I have a set schedule, I feel more in control of my day and it keeps me calm. Hence the meticulously planned days.
Here’s the give and take of leaving your 9-5:
Things you gain in an office: A set structure.
Things you (often) loose in an office: Control over that structure.
Which environment you work better in simply depends on what kind of person you are. Are you the person who would rather give up control, and have someone hand you a rigid structure that you need to follow? Do you need someone to tell you what to do to get work done?
Or would you rather have control over your time, but be forced to come up with your own structure and hold yourself accountable?
If you’re in the latter situation (regardless of personal preference), you need to set yourself up with a schedule that will force you to be accountable.
(My goal is to provide suggestions that give advice beyond reminding you that getting dressed every morning is the ~secret to your freelancing success~, mainly because a lot of good work happens in sweatpants.) Here are 6 things that will help you structure your schedule after you leave your office job:
1. Set specific rules to limit your distractions. Whatever your vice is, set parameters so you’re keeping it in check. For example, I’m not allowed to open Netflix or HBOGo until 5 p.m. I am envious of the people who have enough restraint to watch one episode with their lunch and keep working. If I watch one episode, I’ll watch 4 more, so I have to cut it out completely.
2. Don’t schedule too many appointments in the middle of the day just because you can. (And if you need to set an appointment, make the timing purposeful.) If you have to schedule a lunch or happy hour, use it as a deadline. Be sure to get X & Y tasks done before the meeting so that you stay on track, and are using the appointment to help orient your day.
3. Set working hours. Accept that you will work past them. Setting working hours is more to get you up and working by a certain time because there’s no one to check whether you’re at your desk at 9 a.m. Setting working hours will also help with deadlines. If you set an EOD deadline, but never establish when you’re “end of day is,” you end up working on a project at 8 p.m. that you wanted to turn in at 4.
4. Use the urgency of needing to work for your pay check to your advantage. While I certainly see the appeal and security that comes with being staffed, there is something to be said for earning your keep on a daily basis. When you’re salaried, you can slack off for a day but still get your direct deposit at the end of the week. When you’re freelance, there isn’t time for mental blocks, and time wasters. You have to put in the work every day, or you simply won’t get paid.
5. Chart your day out in hour, two hour, or three hour segments, depending on the nature of your work. And keep this schedule in a separate notebook. Mixing to do lists with a notebook you use for writing down ideas, or taking notes on conference calls, is the easiest way to completely loose track of your schedule.
6. Find habits that work well for you, even if they’re unconventional. Most people I know have a work space, and they try to keep it clean so they aren’t distracted by clutter when trying to be productive. I support that logic, but one of the perks of working from home is that you don’t have to be stuck at a desk all day. I will never be the person that can sit still for 10 hours. I can work for that long, but only because I’m able to sit on the couch for two hours, then at the kitchen table, then on the floor, and then at a makeshift standing desk. Find what space works for you, and what habits (like going for a walk after a few hours stuck inside) will make you more productive.
Maya is a writer in Los Angeles. She is on Twitter.