Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Back in September 2019, I quit my job and freelance projects to write my first novel. I gave myself 6–8 months to focus. I had enough in the bank to survive, so I thought I’d get back to work after I finish the book.

But 6 months later, I still didn’t have a book or a full novel draft.

I got the freedom and space I wanted. Yet, I only finished a handful of book chapters. I would eventually throw away those early chapters because they sucked.

Then my country went on lockdown. I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t run in the mountains — which was my way of meditating. My girlfriend ghosted me. And I was going stir-crazy at home.

Two months of isolation later, I finished four 3k-5k word short stories, got my first story published internationally, and got accepted in a highly sought-after scriptwriting workshop amid thousands of other applicants.

I still didn’t have a book, but I was getting more things done with less freedom.

Pacing freedom

Freedom is like money. If you don’t plan how to spend it — and you don’t stick to that plan — you’ll waste it fast.

Before I quit my job and freelance projects, I never had much time for myself. I was always either at the office, working, or at home, doing client projects.

So when I finally got the free time I wanted, I didn’t know how to manage it.

During those 6 months, I tried budgeting my time the way I budget my money: I would assign certain hours in the day for certain activities. That didn’t work. Just like my money, I didn’t stick to the budget. I spent too much time on things that needed less (like Netflix and dive bars), and too little on things that needed more (like my book).

I would schedule too many things (because I want to get many things done) in a week that I would either finish all of them and get burned out; or not finish all and get disappointed with myself.

Eventually, I learned that pacing is the key. Maybe budgeting time works for others. But not for me. Instead, I’d give myself three things to focus on daily. That would be my structure. Then it’s just a matter of pacing myself on those three things.

I’d usually focus on writing, errands, and fun.

  • I’d wake up and write for a minimum of two hours. This is non-negotiable.
  • If I felt like it, I’d continue writing after those two hours.
  • If not, then I start on my errands
  • After errands, I’d go back to writing
  • Then, I’d go out with friends, or exercise, or binge-watch. It’s a fun way to end the day.

Pacing helped me manage my freedom more successfully. I felt more in charge of my time and activities. It also helped me get things done without burning out. It’s more sustainable and less restrictive than budgeting.

Focus triggers

Ever felt like everything is in chaos and you’re not getting anywhere? Or it’s the middle of the day and the morning is gone but nothing was done?

How do you recover from that?

With limited freedom, I learned to give myself “focus triggers”; Activities that help me feel good about myself, and signal to my body and brain that it’s time for creative work. To some, it might be a yoga session, a stroll at the park, a swim, maybe a cup of iced latte. To me, it’s running.

Running puts me in a meditative state where I can deal with my thoughts, emotions, and stories. As Murakami says, “It’s a form of mesmerism… I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Just a note on your focus trigger:

Avoid harmful coping mechanisms — Smoking, drinking, etc. I used to rely on some of these too. But they’re bad for you in the long run.

It makes you better every day — Instead of running, my focus trigger used to be eating; Chocolate, ice cream, Samyang, etc. They may not be inherently harmful, but it’s best to adopt activities that consistently improve you as a person.

Adjustable routines

Routines are essential. They help you get things done even when you don’t feel like doing anything. But these routines should also be adjustable for difficult times.

I used to have an easy 10-kilometer mountain run twice a week, and a longer 20K-30K run every weekend. But when the lockdown happened, our city banned all outdoor activities.

I don’t have an indoor gym or a treadmill at home. I only have a four-by-five meter open space in my backyard. I had to adjust.

I ran around the backyard for two hours or so a day. This running motion placed me in the meditative state I needed. I’d run, stop to write a little (ideas, inspirations, notes to self, etc.), then run again. I used my 2-hour runs to plan the day and gain inspiration for my writing.

But jogging on a small space with flat terrain is no substitute for the exertion that my body is accustomed to.

So I watched some videos by AthleanX and Chris Heria, selected exercises that worked for me, and then I customized a 45-minute, high-intensity, full-body indoor workout. I did those exercises twice or thrice a week. And they kept me focused.

Freedom comes with a price: Distractions

I’m a free-spirited person. I might have done more things in the two months of isolation following the lockdowns. But I can’t live like that for too long. Eventually, I’d want to go out again, run through mountains, drink with friends.

With the Covid-19 vaccine rolling out, more people are finally regaining their freedom. But other places are still going on lockdowns (my city just got back to stricter measures this month).

Getting things done with less freedom is universal. Many circumstances limit our freedom: Work, relationships, viruses, accidents. But life goes on and so should we.

This experience taught me how to manage the distractions that come with freedom. Now, I pace my time, rather than budget it; keep my focus, even in the middle of a bad day; and adjust my routines to handle unexpected things in life.

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