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You must, you will, you are. How discipline can make you a better freelance writer

Jonathan Wilcock

So What If Ltd – ideas and words for design and advertising

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I had a phone natter earlier, with a dear old friend. Amongst other things, we were comparing notes on our respective morning routines.

At this point, it might help if I explain that I can be a little compulsive and often rather obsessive.

This is why I don’t drink alcohol any more, but let’s leave that for another day shall we.

Anyway, the subject of training the mind and getting results came up, and my friend complimented me on what he recognised as self-discipline.

Then I got all philosophical on the topic.

Now I’ve had time to cogitate on it a little more, I’m pretty sure what I said makes a lot of sense.

So here it is.

Jonathan Wilcock’s musings on self-discipline and all that jazz

Discipline is a scary word.

It smells of 3am push-ups in freezing puddles on Dartmoor.

But without discipline, my career as a freelance writer would never have happened.

I’ve had to slog my guts out to get where I am today.

Two full-time creative courses, six full-time jobs, five redundancies, three recessions, running an agency, a couple of serious career wobbles… it’s not been smooth.

It’s taken blood, sweat and tears; but it’s been (mostly) a lot of fun.

So how do we make ‘discipline’ work for us? How do we stop it from grinding our bones to make its bread?

1. Apply the Nike principle – Just Do It.

You’re at the stage where you know you’ve got to do something. You want to make changes – lose weight, run a marathon, change jobs…

This is possibly the toughest step. You have to shake off the drunken sloth of procrastination and get on with it. Sorry.

But it does get easier – honest.

2. Now you’ve had a taste, have a word with yourself

You’ve dipped your toe in the water (or dipped your quill in the inkpot). Now stop. Take a breather and assess things.

  • How do you feel?
  • Are there any noticeable improvements?
  • Are you enjoying the process?
  • Is it sustainable?

The last point is critical. Can you see yourself carrying on with your new regime for the next 6 months/year/decade?

The best things take commitment. There’s little point in buying all the kit if 2 months down the line your couch potato alter ego knees your good intentions in the unmentionables.

3. Adapt to survive

Perhaps things didn’t quite go to plan. Maybe you aren’t getting the results you’d hoped for. Maybe your holy grail has morphed into a stinky fish.

Good.

At least you know early on that things have to be tweaked.

I think now’s a good time to share a personal experience.

Now remember, I’ve already confessed to being an obsessive personality type, so bearing that in mind:

A few years ago I was turned on to the idea of daily meditation and prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not starting a cult, but this is a great demo of the contrary nature of self-discipline.

So, day one on the road to enlightenment, I changed my morning routine from:

  • 7.30am get up
  • 7.40am panic shower
  • 7.55am panic Cornflakes
  • 8.00am sweaty run to the train

to:

  • 4.00am get up
  • 4.10am shower
  • 4.30am back stretches
  • 4.50am incense-y bit
  • 6.00am leisurely breakfast
  • 7.00am leisurely stroll to the train station.

No doubt, there were some huge benefits, but there were downsides:

  • mid-afternoon slump
  • 5 hours of sleep
  • routine starting to slip
  • it became hard work.

To be fair, this regime lasted several years, but it wasn’t easy. Inevitably the self-discipline required to keep it up started to feel like an enemy rather than a friend.

It all became a little erratic: skipping the odd day here and there, or re-setting the alarm to grab a sneaky extra 10-minutes’ lie-in.

Come lockdown, the routine completely crumbled. After a few weeks of get-up-whenever-you-feel-like-it, it was time to re-set.

I now have a gentler, much more sustainable routine:

  • 5.45am ablutions
  • 6.00am back stretches
  • 6.15am yoga
  • 7.00am incense-y bit
  • 7.45am first cuppa of the day.

I’ve found a happy middle ground. And three months in, I can only see positives. I feel stronger, more relaxed and back in control.

Yes, it requires discipline. But I’m actually enjoying it and it feels like I can keep this up without resentment setting in.

Making discipline your friend

Discipline shouldn’t be a pain. Finding out the hard way has proven this to me beyond any doubt. If being disciplined isn’t working for you, there are two main reasons, as far as I see it:

You’re being too harsh or rigid with yourself. A 7.30 start made life a race. A 4.00am start, while appealing to my inner extremist, was too much. 5.45 is what I think grownups call a happy compromise.

You’re ferreting about in all the wrong places. Not everyone can run a marathon. Not everyone can run for Prime Minister. Not everyone can be a freelance writer.

If it ain’t your bag, be honest with yourself and choose one that is.

If you’re going to fail, get on with it

Freelance writer, Yak Farmer, Jelly Juggler… discipline can make you better at whatever you fancy.

But, if you tether yourself to a rigid routine of iron-willed discipline, wherever it leads you, then discipline can be your worst enemy. Eventually it’ll drag you up the garden path and push you into a bed of nettles.

So my advice is to make discipline your friend. Use it as a tool to help yourself, not to beat yourself up with. Use it to help you to get from A to B quicker, but once there, if you don’t like what you find, find a different B.

Then set sail in a new, happier direction.

To quote Thomas Edison on his journey to inventing the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So, if you’re dead-set on being a freelance writer, stop reading those ‘How to write a million words a day for the rest your life’ blog posts and set yourself a realistic goal.

Push hard, but not so hard that you break something.

And, enjoy it.

First published on sowhatif.co.uk

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