All right y’all. I keep getting questions about how to find motivation as a freelance writer and my head is about to pop off. (How’s for a hook?)
No question out there makes me cringe as hard as “how do I find motivation as a freelancer when I don’t feel like doing it?” I hate this question, with a passion! I have a visceral gut reaction to this and not a friendly one.
If you are relying on motivation to get your stuff done, to build your business, to find your clients, to do your client work, to do all the stuff that is not necessarily very much fun when you’re trying to be a freelance writer, you are gonna fail and you might as well quit today.
Like, quit right now.
Just stop asking me questions, stop trying, stop thinking about it, stop reading blog posts, and quit because motivation will never, ever, ever see you through.
Motivation will fail you. If it’s all you have to go on, you’ve already lost.
I try to remind myself that when people are asking for motivation, they simply do not know better. So today is the day that you know better and the day that you do better. Okay?
I feel strongly about this. I am really hoping I can convey this to you in a way that is forceful and emphatic, but also in a way that you can hear because this is such a critical foundational concept for you to understand.
Motivation is a Feeling, Not a Strategy
Motivation will never lead you to get the stuff done that you need to get done. It may work for a day, it may work for an hour, it may work for five minutes, but motivation is not a strategy.
Motivation is a feeling. Feelings are real, valid, and legitimate, but they are fleeting. They come and they go, they leave us and then they reappear. Sometimes you see them coming, sometimes you don’t. Motivation is a feeling.
Today I’m feeling motivated. Today I’m not feeling motivated. How are you feeling? Oh, I’m feeling totally motivated today. I’m totally gonna do it.
You wake up the next morning and it’s like, ah, I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Your motivation is gone. Then what happens?
You need to have something to fill in the void for when motivation leaves because motivation will leave you and it will leave you quickly.
When you are freelancing, especially in the beginning, things are not fun and happy and pleasant. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you, but it’s work. It takes effort. There’s a learning curve. You are putting your neck on the line, you are facing rejection. Your stuff is being analyzed and criticized and you feel really insecure. It’s not necessarily very much fun.
The wins are like the biggest wins of your life. It feels like you can climb Mount Everest when someone wants to hire you and pay you more money than you ever thought you would get paid. The payoff is amazing. Having your writing validated and published and having people respect it and admire it and comment on it–all that stuff is awesome!
But there’s also stuff that’s not so awesome. You know what’s not awesome? Calculating how much money you have to send to the IRS each quarter! Not awesome, but it must be done.
If you are relying on a feeling to propel you forward and get it done, you’re going to fail. Motivation is never going to be enough for you to get done.
So what do you do instead?
Commitment and Systems
You need a strong ironclad combination of commitment and systems.
It doesn’t have to be complex. A system just means that you have a method to the madness and there is a structure in place that you automatically plug into and do. It doesn’t necessarily mean a set of rules. It doesn’t necessarily mean accountability. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get punished if you don’t do it. You’re not going to get fired. I mean, I guess you could fire yourself!
A system is pre-made decisions about what happens next.
To pre-make those decisions, you need to have the commitment, you need to plan what the decisions are. You need to have your system, you need to have the framework in which you’re going to do your work.
Step One for me to overcoming lack of motivation is always commitment. You must be truly committed to this business that you are building. You must be truly committed to freelance writing if you’re going to have any success because it’s hard and there isn’t always a quick pay off.
Sometimes you go a long time before you get a win. Sometimes you get a whole lot of no’s. I mean, I would get like 20 no’s before I’d get one yes. Do you think that was fun for me? No, it was not fun for me, but I was committed.
The most direct way to fuel your commitment is to decide why you are doing this. Get really, really clear on why you are doing this and stop letting yourself off the hook.
I recently did a “Ask Me Anything” in my Facebook group and someone was asking me about motivation–”how do you stay motivated to get up and get your work done?”
And I was like, “oooo, girl!” If I’d been holding a beer I’d have handed it to my husband James and said, “hold my beer because I am about to go off.”
What’s Your Fire?
You have to find your fire in the belly. I’ve heard it described as making NOT doing it no longer an option. It really comes down to a decision, I am going to do this. I want this outcome of a freelance writing career and I am committed to the outcome and I am dedicated and I will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
For some people, it comes easily. For some people, you have to do a little bit of digging to figure out why do you want this and to get really, really clear on exactly what this business effort of yours is going to deliver. Then you have to make the decision to prioritize that outcome over whatever your feeling is in any particular moment.
You need to stop letting it be an option not to do that work.
This was very, very easy for me to do when I got serious about freelance writing because I was a single mom and I was committed to being the at-home parent with my son, which meant I didn’t want to put him in daycare. I couldn’t go out and get a regular job. I had to figure out how to work from home. I knew my skillset lent itself to freelance writing above any other skillset and I had to show up every day and do the work and the hard stuff–send the emails, build the website, make the phone calls, and do all that stuff.
If I didn’t show up and do that stuff, we didn’t eat. We couldn’t make the rent payment and we would be homeless. There would be no electricity, no running water, no shoes for my growing child. It was very easy for me to think, I’m so tired–I do not want to do this anymore. But then what were the alternatives?
The alternatives were we lived in my car or I enrolled him in daycare and got a crappy job at the school down the street, like the university. Neither of those options were ones I was willing to consider. So, okay, I got up and got it done because there was a power bill that had to get paid, a fridge that needed food in it, and a tummy that had to get fed!
It was that serious.
Your situation may not be that serious, but you need to get really clear on what is the most important thing to you in your life that this freelance writing is going to offer. Maybe it’s, I can come home and be with my kids. Maybe it’s, I can make it so that my husband doesn’t have to work two jobs and we can actually see him and recognize him when he walks in the room.
For some people it’s, I have to get out from under this crushing pile of debt. For some people it’s, we have to get out of this crappy apartment and the only way to do that in a way that is feasible for us is to take on a mortgage because mortgages cost half what rent payments are in our area and we can’t afford a down payment. So I am going to work my tail off until I scrape together $30,000 for a down payment, which you could do in a year. You could do it in less than a year.
You have to get absolutely clear on what the outcome is that you want and you have to focus on that.
Every Reason Not To
The other thing I want you to understand is that you are going to find every reason not to get up and do this stuff.
You need to know what the thing is that you’re driving toward and have easy access to remind yourself because there are going to be days when you just don’t feel like it and there are going to be days when you are really, really tired and days when you have a fight with your spouse or your mom or sister or whatever and you just don’t feel like it.
There are going to be days when the dog poops all over the carpet and you just don’t feel like going to work. There are going to be days when you would rather do anything than sit at the computer and send some more pitches. I get that. That’s why I say you need to be clear on why you are doing this.
It’s not about what you are doing as much as it is about why you are doing it and you need to stop letting yourself off the hook. You need to make lounging in bed and playing Homescapes all morning not be an option.
You have to remove the option of not doing it.
This is kind of a game that you have to play with yourself. It’s a mind trick that you’re playing on yourself. For example, I don’t have to send an unpleasant email, but I do need to go sit at the computer and at least open my inbox, right? It’s a mind game. You have to do whatever it takes to make yourself sit there and do the stuff.
For me now, instead of one child in a rental, I have three children, a spouse, and a mortgage. Yesterday, it was like pulling teeth to get me out of bed. I just didn’t want to face the day! I had a bunch of stuff on my docket and I didn’t want to do it and I had to remind myself that not doing it is no longer an option because if I get in the habit of not showing up, then we’re going to lose the house.
No one wants to live in a minivan with three children and a husband!
Find Ways to Self-Apply Pressure or Deadlines
Step Two to overcoming the lack of motivation is finding ways to apply pressure on yourself.
Once you have the pressure applied, your system makes it really, really easy. For me, this means planning out my entire week. On Monday, I’m going to work on this and this. On Tuesday, I’m going to work on this and that. On Wednesday, I’m going to hammer on all the bonuses for this new course. On Thursday, I’m going to do all my client work and wrap up all my deadlines. On Friday, I’m going to record all my podcasts for the month of August. That’s what my week looked like this week.
I had this massive editing project that I just did not want to do. I put it off for like two weeks. Finally I told the guy, the problem with this particular project is that it’s an open deadline. It’s “get it to us whenever you can.” So I dragged my feet a little bit because I was really dreading it. Then I checked in with him and said if you do not have this from me by next Friday you can have my head on a pike.
I set my own deadline, I applied my own pressure.
I have a system for knowing what I’m going to do when I get to work. As I finish up work the day before, I make a list of the top three things I need to do the next day, so that when I manage to get to work the next day I can sit down and do my work.
I know exactly what I need to do and already have a plan to get started. I don’t have to sit there, check my email, figure out what I was doing yesterday, decide what I’m going to do today, and blah, blah, blah.
I eliminate all of that emotional decision making (and opportunity to rethink/sabotage myself!) by making my list the day before. There’s no emotionally fueled decision making. I can just jump in and get started.
Now I have a whole lot more going on. I’m not just doing client work anymore; I have a whole lot of moving parts and I actually map out my weeks. I do calendar blocking/time blocking.
James and I get our planners out on Sunday night and look at what appointments we have the coming week. What are all the moving pieces, who has this, who has that, and who wants to have us over for dinner. I need a chunk of four hours to get a bunch of recording done. So what’s a good day for that and do we need to go to the library and who wants to go to music?
We plan out our days and we see if I need two quiet days around the house so I can get recordings done or have client calls. He will set his schedule to accommodate my work needs and we do this kind of scheduled Jiu Jitsu shuffle-y thing.
Then I know that on Monday morning when I wake up, I have an hour for email and administrative catch-up, then something else for two hours, I’m doing another thing for an hour, then I have lunch, and then I’m doing something else for the rest of the day. I have my whole week planned out like that and there is no more emotional decision making. I just have to show up and do what I’ve already told myself to do. I’ll share more about this in a future post.
Do not rely on motivation because motivation will fail you.
You will fail if you rely on motivation and then you’re going to get into these cycles of guilt and beating yourself up and feeling like you’re not good enough.
All that really unproductive stuff. It’s way easier to write out a To Do list and show up and get it done!
- You have to have the commitment.
- You have to understand why you’re doing this in the first place.
- You have to stop letting it be an option not to show up.
- You need to make your decisions apart from any emotion.
- You need to pre-make your decisions the vast majority of the time.