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You have to be disciplined to be an independent professional. Organized. Controlled. A go-getter's go-getter. You've got to be the sort of person who can stay on task without the help of a whip-cracking boss standing over your shoulder. I've lost count of how many times my wage-slave friends have said to me: "Jeez, Peter, I don't know how you do it. You must be really disciplined to get so much work done on your own."
And you know what? I am. But I have to work at it -- and so do you, if you want to fly solo for more than a week.
When you're your own boss, the motivation that drives you to complete jobs on time or to produce your best work has to come from somewhere deep within yourself (right between the appendix and the spleen, I think). Your desire to please your clients or put food on the table (the first axiom of independent professionals: if you don't work, you don't get paid) must be stronger than your desire to watch The Young and the Restless or sit in a bar drinking beers with your buddies.
In my case, a cash-sucking family of five -- with our weekend bowling leagues, hula lessons, ice skating, dance recitals, baby gymnastics, and oh, so much more -- keeps me stationed at my computer, tapping away at the keyboard as fast as my little fingers will move. And thank God for my family! For despite my workaholic tendencies, I can procrastinate with the best of 'em. In fact, when I was in college, I majored in procrastination -- always waiting until the last minute possible before the Big Test to crack a book. Then it was one big caffeine-fest from dusk until dawn, until just minutes before the start of the exam.
Gee, that kind of sounds like the way I get things done now.
So what is it with this procrastination thing anyway? Why do so many IPs put off work until the last minute or, in some cases, never get around to doing it at all? Well, I'm no shrink, but I suspect that a few different things might be happening here.
One psychological factor is the fear of failure. What better way to avoid failure than to put off doing the task at hand? (If you never get started, you never have to risk having some client look at your work and say, "You got a steak between your ears or something?") Although I've written more books than I can even remember, I'm always filled with dread before I type the first few pages of a new one. What keeps me from punting the whole thing and hiding out in the woods with a canteen full of water and a dog named Max? My knowledge that this is a natural (and inevitable) phase that all my projects go through, and that if I just start working on the project (instead of fretting about it), everything will eventually work out just fine.
There's another psychological issue that's at the heart of that dreaded beast, procrastination: maybe you just don't want to do what you're doing. Huh? How could that be? Isn't IP-hood supposed to be the greatest thing since Viagra? Sure, for many freelancers it is -- but only if they're doing the work that they're not just good at, but that they truly love.
Could it be that you're putting off your work because... you simply don't like doing it? Let's face it, people, there are all kinds of gigs out there, and sometimes we take on jobs that we are not only unhappy with, but that make us sick. If this sounds like the latest chapter in your autobiography, don't freak out -- remember, my freelancing friends, you're in charge here. You can decide to be whatever you want to be. As my favorite line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show goes, "Don't dream it, be it."
Structure = Success
To be a successful IP requires structure. You have to be able to design and build an organized work life all by yourself. This means establishing regular work hours, setting up a workspace that is conducive to getting work done, maintaining systems for tracking (and adhering to) project deadlines, and the other kinds of things that make a business hum. We all know people who have every second of every day mapped out in their little PalmPilots -- but for the rest of us, creating structure in our work lives (or in our personal lives, for that matter) just isn't in our genetic code.
You may have to force yourself to buy (and use) a wall calendar or a daily planner. Or: why not try a work audit? Get yourself a notebook, and, for a single week, write down everything that you do while you're at work (including breaks and lunch and errands), and exactly how much time each activity takes. At the end of the week, analyze the way you've used your time. You may gain some insight about how to set up an effective work routine.
And here's another tip: every project that runs more than a day or so has one or more natural breakpoints. These are the gaps that separate the completion of one discrete portion of work from the beginning of another. Instead of stopping when you hit a breakpoint, keep working past it -- just enough so that you're immersed in the next portion of the project before you stop. When you come back to the job, you'll be able to dive right in. Give it a try -- I think you'll find it helps.
Being boss-free isn't easy. It takes shiploads of discipline, and if you're not naturally endowed with this stuff, it means that you've got to acquire it somehow. Which is to say, if you find yourself more often than not saying mañana -- tomorrow -- when it comes to getting your work done, then don't just sit there: do something about it. If you don't, no one else will.
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