The golden freelance skill: self-discipline

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With all the focus on learning new tech skills like coding and data mining, it is easy to neglect the one skill that tends to make or break most freelance journalism careers. Without it, we wouldn’t stay in business nor create a healthy balance in work, life and bank account. Self-discipline.
With the most awesome forms of digital distraction at our fingertips pretty much 24/7, a rigorous work regime is the only way to keep your business going in the long run. Freelance journalists, more than most, always have valid excuses for having to be online. Research is mostly done on the web and carries on well into the production stage and the next commission might just come in via Twitter or Facebook, needing an immediate reply.
And yet, I would argue that on production days, regardless of whether you work from home, an office or on the go, it is often best to switch off. These five measures help me to focus and get the hard graft done:
  1. Switch off notifications. Keep a record for one day of every popup message that you get on your phone, tablet and desktop computer: everything from emails to Skype, Facebook and Outlook calendar invites. Then go into the settings of each programme or app and switch them off.
  2. Set a weekly hour to schedule all your social media posts. Tools like Hootsuite let you do this for free via a dashboard which can connect all your channels in one place. For the rest of the week, just allow two or three five minute slots per day maximum for replies.
  3. Install an email/social media blocker. This is a bit of software which voluntarily censors your PC at certain hours. The most used ones tend to be the most ‘strict’ ones that don’t have a switch off button. Try ‘Anti-Social’: it’s all in the name, really.
  4. Use a distraction-free writing interface. There are many different tools for this, including the full-screen Omm Writer and FocusWriter. Find one that works for you by test-writing a few paragraphs and stick with it.
  5. Take your laptop somewhere with no internet and switch your smart phone off completely. It took me a while to realise why I always seemed to write much quicker on the London to Glasgow express train.  I’d suspected it was because there’s no proper phone signal on half the journey, but I connected the dots after Virgin installed wifi on board and my productivity dwindled. If there is public wifi in a place (increasingly unavoidable), refrain from finding out the password.
Do you still not see the need for any of it? Then at least take a minute to work out how much time you’ve wasted on Facebook over the years. Or –even more scary- install the recently launched Menthal app. This German invention by researchers from the University of Bonn is like Big Brother in your pocket, but for all the right reasons.
Menthal tracks how much time you spend on the phone and sees which apps consume most of your attention. If the beta stage is successful, it will be able to observe how events in your life affect your phone usage. All with the goal of maintaining a sustainable digital lifestyle. It might just help you to make your freelance business sustainable too.


The realities of life as a freelance journalist are tackled hands on during the Journopreneur Workshop on 31 May 2014. For more info and booking, have a look here.