business of freelancing

Why you don’t need a writing routine

By March 27, 2018 June 29th, 2019 10 Comments

I’ve been coaching quite a few freelance writers lately and when we talk about some of the challenges they have there are five words that pop up over and over: “I don’t have a writing routine”. Often these writers tell me they feel guilty and unproductive because they don’t have a set routine. But I think the focus and pressure on freelancers to have a writing routine is unnecessary. Here’s why.

Why freelance writers don’t need a writing routine

When freelancers tell me they want a writing routine I’m genuinely curious about why they don’t have one, why they want one and what they think a routine would give them.

By and large they tell me that they’ve read numerous articles espousing the importance of establishing and sticking to a writer’s routine – how Stephen King’s writing schedule means he sits down at a certain time each day in the same seat with the intent of writing six pages or how Barbara Kingsolver wakes at 4am to write.

These routines of well-known and prolific authors are impressive, but I don’t believe it’s all that helpful for freelancers.

It’s not that I’m not against routines – they can carve space in an otherwise chaotic day, they give some people enormous comfort,  and having a routine (such as always writing in the same café) can immediately place you in the right zone for writing – but I’ve come to believe that a lack of a routine is holding many freelance writers back.

Not because writers don’t have a routine, but because they feel like they should have one.

Some of us thrive in a regular, writing routine. I admire those people – for many years I tried to twist myself into a version of them, but I am not naturally one of them.

I’ve finally realised that you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and who you are.

When you look up synonyms for the word ‘routine’ – you get offered alternatives such as mundane, dull, repetitive and monotonous – not exactly words you associate with being a creative professional.

And in fact, they are not words that I think anyone would associate with being a freelancer.

I love these comments from illustrator Marc Martin in Madeleine Dore’s wonderful blog Extraordinary Routines, where he says:   

“One of the greatest things about freelancing is being able to make my own rules – I don’t like the idea of having to be at the same place at exactly the same time every day just because somebody said so! Being flexible with times and routines helps me feel in control of my life – if I want to work from home in the morning, or come into the studio later, I’ll do that too.”

I think the beauty of being a freelancer is exactly what Marc says – you’re free to set your own schedule and that’s a huge part of the appeal.

Of course, for lots of us (me included) that means a tendency to procrastinate if a deadline isn’t looming and that often makes us crave a routine so that we can be more productive.

But I’ve found that if you try to shoehorn yourself into a routine that doesn’t suit you or your life, it’s a recipe for feeling miserable and even more unproductive – if you’re a night owl who is trying to get up at 6am because that’s what you “should” do, then you’re going to be mighty unhappy.

I want to reassure you that you can be fulfilled as a writer – you can be pursuing the stories you want to, writing the articles that make you happy, as well as puddling around on social media, day dreaming and also earning a good income. It’s possible. I’m living proof.

What a routine is really about

I think most people’s unhappiness about routines doesn’t come from the fact that they can’t stick to a routine or don’t have one, but because they feel like they should have one and they don’t.

A writing routine doesn’t automatically make you productive, or suddenly less prone to procrastination. No.

A writing routine gives you the structure so that you can be more productive and get on with it.

It’s all about getting the job done.

So rather than a writing routine, think about what you need to get your job done.

For some of us, it’ll be a physical space away from the kitchen table, the kids’ homework and the clothes in the washing basket. For me my only real routine is that I have the same two days a week in at my fantastic coworking space and that’s enough to anchor my productivity. 

For others of us, we need the emotional (and perhaps the financial) support of our partners or families to get our writing done – it’s not just about time.

For yet others it’s about needing the confidence, the contacts or knowing how to get started with freelance writing.

So much of the advice out there about routines is one-size-fits-all, but there’s no one right routine.

Yes, habits can be really great in helping you get your work done (and this is an interesting idea about using your ‘weakness’ to drive a habit) but freeing yourself of the need for a routine (and the guilt of not having one), is one of the best ways you can move your freelance business forward.

Do you have a routine? Do you think freelance writers need a routine?

10 Comments

  • Bron Willis says:

    Lindy I totally agree – one of the benefits of being a freelancer is choosing your hours, which means that if you want to take a break to do an exercise class in the middle of the day, for example, you can. The problem I find though, is that to do that, you might have to make up that time you took off at a less desirable time – like in the evening when you’re tired. If I do this, then it quickly becomes unclear when I’m "off" work and when I’m "on". Which means, inevitably, that I feel truly "off" less often. (If that makes sense?!)
    So I have ended up trying to stick to my set days whenever I can so that I’m clearer that "today I am not working". (Well, not the paid kind anyway!!!)

    Thanks for a great post! I love that you’re willing to say "everyone seems to think x but actually, I think "y". Brace, refreshing and valuable! Thankyou.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Ah, that’s a really good point Bron. Yes, I think that line of ‘at work’ or ‘not at work’ can get blurry really quickly and then it can feel as if you’re always ‘on’.
      For me, having set days to work is enough of a routine – I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to establish a strict writing routine within those days.
      Thanks for your comment x

  • Jack Vawdrey says:

    Hi Lindy,

    For me, routines help me get into writing mode, and I do try to write at the same time of day. But of course, with so much going on, that routine can be sporadic. Still, when I am able to recreate the right environment, I usually work better and faster.

    I wrote a blog post about this. Hope you don’t mind me sharing it here:

    http://www.writinggrid.com/blog/writing-productivity/10-tips-to-increase-freelance-writing-productivity/

    Jack Vawdrey

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks Jack, thanks for your comment. It’s great that routines help you. And I’ve definitely found that doing #6 (planning your day) from your post has made a difference to my productivity.

  • Catie says:

    Thanks for that refreshing post! I agree. Sometimes I spend too much timing thinking about what my writing life should look like, comparing myself to all the advice out there and forget that beautiful little word within freelance – "free." 🙂

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thank you Catie! And yes, it’s so easy to get caught up in what we should be doing rather than just doing it.

  • Claire says:

    You’re right, everyone is different and everyone has their own ‘right’ routine. I always try and work in the evenings because that’s when I have quiet time, but really I tend to be quite tired by then so it’s not my best time. I’m more of a morning person, so I need to try and do most of the harder stuff then. I do love to read about other people’s routines though, I think I’m just nosy! I do envy you your co-working space, I know that something like that would really focus me. At home it’s far too easy to get distracted. I’m trying to schedule my day more so that I don’t have to ask myself, ‘What should I do next?’ – if I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, then hopefully I won’t procrastinate and the more difficult jobs will get done.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I’m like you Claire, I try to work in the evenings but it’s really not when I’m at my best. I found that working out what I was going to do the night before my work day really helped cut back on procrastination time. And yes, my coworking space is so great for concentration as well as socialising with others in my town – I hope one opens near you soon?!

  • You can’t really have a routine as a writer when what you’re doing varies. I was working in the structural edit of my book at the start of this year, and I’m with a publisher so there was a timeframe, and it just had to be done. I was working consistently though the days then. Now I’m starting some work with a new client I’m on a retainer for and I’ve got research and site visits to make (on a wine route, lucky me!!) plus the kids are on school holiday plus I’ve got my first head cold in two years so I’m in bed. Routine? I don’t see how!!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Oh dear, I really feel for you Fiona. Kids at home, work to be done and sickness is the worst combination ever. New client on a retainer (and a wine route) however … 🙂
      I think so many of us feel we should have a routine and beat ourselves up about it, when like you say, it’s so difficult to have a stead routine when your work varies so much.
      Sending you lots of healthy vibes – hope you feel better soon.

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