Joining the gig economy means I can make my own time, which is both a blessing and a curse. I quickly found that being a productive freelance copywriter is about developing and maintaining healthy habits.
Bad habits include starting the day late (because I can) and then finishing late. After all, late finishes are one of the reasons I left advertising. How ironic that I found myself arriving home past 9 pm given my newfound freedom.
After struggling for a short period, I found the universe suddenly raining information on habit formation.
My wife pointed out a habits book she’d bought me a while ago that I hadn’t yet read. A copywriting podcast I listen to featured a habits expert that week. Blog posts popped up talking about habits. While researching for a ghostwriting project I came across industry leaders who attributed their success to their habits. E-mails reminded me that Ryan Holiday, one of my favourite thinkers and authors, has an entire newsletter about habits: Writing Routines.
(Side note - it’s not the first time in my life something like this has happened. I once went through a period of family illness and general personal turmoil, and the world kept feeding my information about stoic philosophy. It always seems to be willing to offer you the food you need, you just have to be willing to eat it.)
Be Better Than Before
I picked up the book on the shelf and found it was Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before (was wifey giving me a hint that I need to improve?) It’s highly personal but informative and it’s full of ideas. Out of them, I picked out a few key tips:
Form the habit first. Start super small. If you want to read every day, or write every day, start with a sentence. Get the ball rolling.
Don’t break the chain. Really. Ever.
Recognise how best you keep habits. Is it with accountability? Is it by really understanding how well the benefit would help you?
Make it as easy as possible for yourself. Remove every obstacle and possible excuse. Add in cues.
Have a trigger for each habit if possible. Such as always reading when you get home from work, or on the train and have a reward in place.
There’s No Such Thing As Willpower
It was also interesting to discover that people with ‘strong willpower’ don’t exist. They are just the result of ingrained habits and the fact they have removed temptation as much as possible. They know how to put themselves in situations where all obstacles are removed and where all they can do is work.
Sometimes we might think of ourselves as not having that ‘strength’, when really it’s about knowing yourself and putting in the effort to limit your exposure to things you know are bad for you. Studies show too much temptation leads to eventual moral exhaustion, which leads to relapse.
Zadie Smith, one of my favourite authors, has spoken about how she can’t write with an internet connection, so she uses the Freedom app to shut it off or goes on writers retreats. In fact, many writers do. Someone once said that “No great work of art was ever produced by someone with a great internet connection.” The temptation for distraction is too strong. Willpower doesn’t come into it - its very existence exhausts the mind.
The Power of a Power Hour
One of the best things I picked up from Gretchen’s book was the idea of the ‘Power Hour’.
This is a time I mark out in my day where I do nothing but work. No internet, no phone messages, nothing. When it’s over, I reward myself with a break - possibly a guilty bit of YouTube, whatever. It’s amazing what I can get done, and I’m now marking out multiple power hours per day.
These new habit-making skills have also meant I’m working on my own personal writing projects for the first time in years. All by starting small and making myself accountable. I downloaded a simple app that’s really helped (I use Loop - Habit Tracker on the Android Store). Every day I just ‘tick’ that I wrote something, even if it’s just a sentence, and I make sure I don’t break the chain.
The First Step Leads into a Run
Like all the habits I’ve tried to instill, I’ve learned that starting small doesn’t mean accomplishing small things. It turns out that as soon as I write one sentence, I’m engaged and willing to write more. Or as soon as I read a paragraph, I read more. Starting is more than half the battle. And when you’re committed to just starting every day, you’re well on your way to whatever it is you want to do.
We’re living in an age where it’s never been more difficult to sit down, concentrate and produce something of worth. We’re constantly being pulled in a thousand directions by things designed to give us instant gratification and steal our attention away. So digging into the world of habits and arming ourselves with some knowledge can only be a good idea.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”