Why Freelance Creatives Need Routine More Than Anyone

When I quit the 9-5, I also quit interviews, meetings, small talk, deadlines (for the most part), and above all, routine.

For me, routine represented everything I wanted to get away from. It was the complete antithesis of what I wanted out of life: change, novelty, serendipity, freedom.

For a long time, I lived and worked well under this idea, hitting the grind when and only when I was inspired to do so — in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, on planes or in coffee shops, when all I had was a pencil or a tablet.

Nature doesn’t flow according to a set of sticky notes or a schedule, it just happens; so why should I?

But after a while, I realised I was kidding myself. Although I was enjoying my new do-what-the-f*ck-you-want lifestyle, I was spending most of it not on new and exciting creative projects, but on the most rudimentary and fruitless trivialities:

What should I do first? What do I feel like doing? Where should I work from? Do they have good wifi?

When working an office job, all of these questions are redundant. Everything is set up for you to just get on and do the work. Yet here I was living the so-called creative’s dream but spending the whole time in admin and logistics (and making a poor job of them).

Although I didn’t want to admit it at the time, I’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The reality was that really everyone, especially freelancers working in creative disciplines like writing, illustration, and programming, needs routine.

It’s easy to look at nature, the ultimate creative act, and suggest that it exists free of plans and agendas, rules and regulations. But if you look a little closer, you see there’s order in everything it does. The way trees grow, birds tweet, the seasons go around. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Monotony is the law of nature. Look at the monotonous manner in which the sun rises”.

Routine doesn’t make life any less creative. The best abstract paintings, spine-tingling compositions, and surprising novels follow some routine or other. To thrive, creativity needs limits and rules — like taking a patch of wilderness and tending it into a beautiful, flourishing garden. It’s all about setting restraints and limitations to harness energy so that you can turn it into something new and original.

In this way, the creative thrives most when they have a set routine to work by. For starters, it helps them free up time and energy, become better at taking action, and as a result of the two combined, become even more creative.

But after making routine a consistent part of my life, I’ve also found it brings many other benefits:

“Give up on yourself, begin taking action now” — Shoma Morita

A lot of procrastination comes from the delusion of perfectionism: i.e. the idea that there’s a perfect answer for everything and that you could ever be a perfect version of yourself.

Perfectionism is generally not something to brag about; more often than not it’s born from fear and a failure to recognise the inherent imperfection in everything. The nobility of the sentiment is what makes it so deceptive: by kidding yourself you just want things to be perfect, you don’t have to face uncertainty about your capabilities and your underlying fear of failing.

The most anyone can do is be the best imperfect person they can be. That means: not waiting until you’re more skilled, knowledgeable, or wise before you do something, admitting you don’t know how things will turn out and doing them anyway, and creating a routine that puts both these things into practice and pushes you toward action.

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and the great things while they are small” — Lao Tzu

Nobody simply runs a marathon; they run 26 individual miles after weeks, months, years of training, and then they cross the line to collect their medal. Likewise, nobody writes a book; they write chapters, pages, paragraphs and sentences, and then publish it as one work and claim their accolades.

The examples above are things that anyone would be proud to have achieved, yet most of us have already done them both. Many people have run 26 miles even just in flagging down the bus. And written 10,000 words in emails or comments on social media. People who turn such acts into significant achievements are no different; they merely work in a more frequent and regimented fashion.

You can’t hit a target you can’t see, and you cannot see a target you do not have.” — Zig Ziglar

Without a clear goal or trajectory, you’re on a path to nowhere and everything is at once important. Rather than being free to be creative, you’re bound by the seemingly infinite number of things you could, would, or should do. Real freedom comes with understanding in which direction you’re going in and getting on a path that takes you there.

Even if you don’t know it, you’re always operating under a system. After all, to not have any goals is itself a goal. By simply being aware of where you’re going and consciously setting goals and targets, you ensure you’re always moving in the right direction and are your time and energy is not stolen by things unimportant to you.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.