A Day in the Life of a Freelancer + Daily Routine Examples
Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of a freelancer looks like?
Some people (mistakenly) think it’s all fun and games and not much work. Others wonder how independent professionals get work done with no boss telling them what to do.
While most independent professionals enjoy a great deal of flexibility in their days, they have also put in the hard yards to create and achieve this freedom.
To shed some light on this and clear up common misconceptions, I want to share a sneak peek into a day in my life as a freelancer. In this article:
- Understand why independent professionals need a routine
- Learn how to build your own ‘Ideal Day’ routine
- Get a glimpse into an ideal day in the life of a freelancer
Additionally, I’ve also included plenty of practical advice from other real-life independent professionals I interviewed. I hope you find these insights useful. Let’s dive in.
If you want freedom, discipline matters
Ask any successful independent professional and they will tell you this—discipline matters. It may sound boring but it’s true.
The most obvious benefit of freelancing is freedom. To achieve this freedom, you must be disciplined.
Former U.S. Navy SEAL Jocko Willink writes more about this philosophy in his book Discipline Equals Freedom. According to him, “Freedom is what everyone wants — to be able to act and live with freedom. But the only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline.”
Discipline, of course, is a daily practice. Self-employed solopreneurs and independent professionals usually create this discipline by setting themselves a daily routine. A routine/ a schedule/ a plan—or whatever you choose to call it—gives your day structure. This structure not only helps you get your work done but also helps you ensure work-life balance.
I’ve traveled the world as a digital nomad, all while running my own business. I truly believe that without a disciplined daily routine, this would not have been possible.
As I started writing this article, I thought it would be useful for you to hear from other independent professionals so you know this advice isn’t just one person’s point of view. I reached out to three fellow independent professionals on Upwork’s content team—Amy Sept, Sheri Baker, and Hayalsu Altinordu.
I asked them for their thoughts on routine, being productive, and how they structure their day as independent professionals. Unsurprisingly, all three professionals agreed that routine matters!
Marketing lead and independent professional, Sheri Baker, is definitely Team Routine. However she also emphasizes that independent professionals should ultimately do what works best for them—a point you will notice I try to make repeatedly throughout this article.
According to Sheri, “Yes, routine definitely matters, although I think it depends on the person. I love routine, so for me, this has worked well. But at the same time, one of the benefits freelancing offers is the ability to work and live on your own terms. So if a routine is not your thing, that's fine. But I'd say find a rhythm that works for you and let your partners know what it is so they know how best to work with you.”
Why independent professionals need a routine
But why? Why are independent professionals so adamant about having a routine? Let’s take a look at four important reasons.
1. Adds structure to your day
When you work for yourself, it’s up to you to create your own schedule. While this is great, it can also be challenging. Creating a daily routine helps add structure and a sense of predictability to your day. You don’t have to wake up every morning and figure out what to do—it’s already decided. Now all you have to do is get it done.
2. Minimizes procrastination
Once you have a schedule in place, it can turn into your procrastination-busting best friend. Without a set structure, days can feel interminably long. This also results in thinking you have all the time in the world to get things done. A routine sets limits to your day and ensures you make the most of your time.
3. Reduces stress, improves focus
Having no structure can be mentally draining and very stressful because you’re constantly worrying about when you will get things done. Being disorganized also eats into our ability to focus. All of this put together reduces our overall productivity.
Fellow content writer Amy Sept agreed, “I'm a big believer in the science that says having a routine reduces cognitive load by taking the stress out of my day: I don't have to plan when I'm going to work. It doesn't always go as planned, but I create an ideal schedule and try to stick to it. Just as important, when I don't follow a routine I can really feel it: I feel scattered, disorganized, and less focused.”
4. Promotes work-life balance
It’s not all about work. Being disciplined about your daily routine helps you make sure you fit in everything else that matters to you as well. I typically work fixed hours Monday to Friday. I don’t work weekends and use this time to recharge. All three independent professionals I spoke with said the same of their routines too. A schedule sets limits so you can spend your other time with family, exercise, pursue a hobby, or do anything else that helps you feel more balanced.
How to build your own ‘Ideal Day’ routine
Everyone has their own version of an ‘Ideal Day’ i.e. a day that includes a perfect mix of everything that’s important to you. This obviously includes work but also other areas of your life.
When thinking about creating your own routine as an independent professional, it’s worth taking the Ideal Day approach. This way you make sure your work gets done but you also don’t lose sight of other aspects that make you feel balanced.
Start by visualizing your Ideal Day:
- How would you spend your time?
- What does it include? (e.g. self-care)
- What does it not include (e.g. stress)
Take note of what comes up.
I believe freelancing gives us the flexibility to live out our Ideal Day, every day. So I created my ideal daily routine considering all areas of my life. It’s not always perfectly balanced but this way at least I’m more mindful of making time for everything that matters to me.
Here are some tips to help you create your Ideal Day too.
Be clear on your non-negotiables
Start with your non-negotiables i.e. the things that you’d like to include in your routine daily. You can call these your daily priorities too.
For example, my daily non-negotiables include healthy eating, exercise, family/ relationships, reading, and good sleep. I seem to have a lot in common with the others too. Hayalsu added music to this list. Amy, who currently lives in Spain, added Spanish study. Sheri prioritizes preparing for Shabbat by taking Fridays off.
These non-negotiables are just as important as work. In fact, they make you better at what you do and improve your productivity.
Amy summed it up really well when she said, “I started my own business to be location independent and own my own time. So I think it's important to make space for all of my priorities or I'm wasting this gift that I have!”
Set a start and finish time
No, you don’t have to work a 9-to-5 anymore. However, most independent professionals do set themselves fixed hours. Once again, this adds structure to your day and also helps you make the most of your productive time.
As you will see in my daily routine below, I try to be at my desk by 7 a.m. on most days and finish by 4 p.m. This allows me some overlap time with Upwork team members who are in North American time zones. I’m also more creative in the mornings. I especially like having more time after work in summer to make the most of the sunshine and potential beach time.
You don’t have to work early in the day if that’s not for you. Choose start and finish times that suit you and manage your time in a way that works for you. For example, Amy usually starts her work day at 11 a.m. and works until 7 p.m. This is to allow for overlap time, too, and it suits the Spanish culture and lifestyle better.
Take breaks often
When you look at my daily routine below, you may think I work quite a long day. Truth is, I take a lot of breaks. I do a lot of creative writing work and without breaks, it would be impossible to do my best work.
I take a mid-morning meditation break and rarely eat lunch at my desk. I also sometimes take random breaks to stare out of the window, to read, or simply to hang out the laundry, if my mind feels overloaded.
When and how often you take your breaks, and what you do during these breaks is completely up to you but make sure to build them into your daily routine. Without adequate breaks, you’re likely to be much less productive and burn out sooner.
Content marketing associate, Hayalsu Altinordu, makes sure she takes a one-hour lunch break daily. She also takes her dog for a daily walk in the afternoon—a habit that does wonders for both the dog’s and her own well-being.
Sheri uses her lunch break to prep dinner so she can spend time with her children when they get back from school. Amy often listens to podcasts during her break and might even take a nap.
Research by Microsoft proved that our brains need regular breaks. “Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in meetings,” said Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group.
Breaks are crucial for a productive, less stressful day so factor that into your routine.
Set boundaries with family and friends
While attitudes are changing, you may find that some friends or family members view your new freelancing career as funemployment i.e. not a real job. It can be annoying, I know.
The best and only way to handle it is to set clear boundaries. Say no to middle-of-the-day catch-up invites, random favor asks, or drop-in visits. Yes, your work is flexible, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to work.
Having a set routine can really help with this. I have made my work hours very clear to my family and friends and after all these years, they no longer expect me to be available for random weekday catch-ups.
It’s not easy and may involve a few difficult conversations. Don’t worry about upsetting anyone. Be kind but be firm in setting expectations about when you’re available. Prioritize your work and your own schedule. Take yourself and your work seriously, and others will too.
Make time for self-care
Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Self-care could mean a massage or it could mean a run on your own. It could mean meditating or just some alone time.
It’s easy to get caught up in work all the time, especially when you’re new to freelancing. But it’s important not to lose sight of the freedom and flexibility that first attracted you to freelancing. Don’t work yourself into the ground.
Self-care makes you a better, more productive worker. According to Trello, “making yourself a priority, and cultivating a consistent self-care routine will not only help you avoid burnout (and be a happier person in the process), but it can also help you ramp up your productivity—and squeeze more out of the time you are at work.”
I prioritize daily self-care simply by maintaining my routine, which helps keep my anxiety at bay. I also try to find some quiet time daily whether it’s while reading or meditating. This daily self-care helps me show up as my best self at work and in life.
Sheri explained it well: “I really believe gaps are where the magic happens. I want to be the absolute best marketing lead and absolute best mom and partner I can be. If I don't make time for these things, I won't be able to be on my a-game or be present when these 'gaps' happen and life will pass me by! My family is my priority, and my work is my passion. Making time for both is really important to me.”
Hayalsu agrees and while she admits she’s still working on this herself (aren’t we all?), her advice is, “Know your limits and take care of yourself. Nothing is more important than your well-being and you simply have one life.”
Build a routine that works for you
Finally, do what works for you. Some of us thrive with strict schedules, while others find it overwhelming. Create your schedule in a way that serves you.
We’ve discussed the benefits of having a set schedule but this doesn’t have to be highly structured if you don’t want it. Your schedule could simply include a general outline of your day. Others may just have a loose to-do list.
Some of us are morning people, others work better in the afternoon while some others prefer to work at night.
I prefer long stretches of “flow” work before having a break while others may prefer to have a break more often to stay productive.
Adapt your schedule as you see fit.
Hayalsu echoed this sentiment, “I think one of the most important aspects of being successful as an independent professional is to have your own routine. Everyone has their own way. My attention span can be short. That's why I make sure to take frequent breaks, get things done at home, or go for a bike ride.”
An ideal day in the life of a freelancer
Keeping all this advice in mind, let’s come back to the point—what does a freelancer's day look like in real life? Here’s a glimpse at my Ideal Day schedule.
Just so you know, I definitely practice what I preach. I’m always working on optimizing my ‘Ideal Day’ so it suits my life. What you see here may change again in a few weeks or months.
My ‘Ideal Day’ Plan
My ‘Ideal Day’ plan in action
Since you asked for it, here’s a glimpse of an ideal Wednesday in my life as an independent professional. Note that not every Wednesday looks like this. Of course, there are days I sleep in and miss my walk or days where I don’t cook dinner. Today I knew you were “watching” me so I was on my best behavior of course!
5:30 a.m.: Wake up and go for a walk
When the alarm goes off, I hit snooze but then I remember you’re watching me today so I get out of bed. I am a morning person, yet somehow getting out of bed never stops being a chore!
I brush my teeth, change my clothes, eat a banana, and head out for a walk on the beach. It's a beautiful, slightly chilly, Spring day here on the Gold Coast. I buy a coffee along the way to warm up.
Starting my day with a walk, a bike ride or at least just heading outdoors is something I’ve started incorporating into my daily routine over the last couple of years. I’ve found I’m much more productive and much less anxious when I do that.
According to the BBC, “Generally the research tells us that when people are exposed to the natural environment and natural features, they tend to have a reduced stress response. When you are out in nature you have lower blood pressure, better heart rate variability, better mood.”
6:30 a.m.: Shower, breakfast
I come home, shower, make myself breakfast and get ready for the work day. On days where I haven’t had a coffee while I’m out, I make my coffee and then head into the office (our spare bedroom) to start work.
7:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Morning work session
I start my day by looking at my diary to see what I have on my plate for the day. I then quickly check my email and Slack as well.
I know many productivity experts suggest not looking at your email first thing in the morning but it works for me. Most of the Upwork team I work with are in American time zones so I often have messages and emails that come in overnight. I like to take a look to make sure I respond to anything important
As you can see I like to start work pretty early. It also means I can finish early, which leaves me with more time at the end of the day for cooking, exercise, and anything else I would like to do.
8:30 a.m.: Client call
I have a call at 8:30 today. It’s only 15 minutes and it’s just a quick catch-up call to discuss upcoming work and priorities.
10:30 a.m.: Short break to meditate
I take a quick mid-morning break to meditate and re-energize. This is something new I’ve been trying and really enjoying. I struggle to meditate first thing in the morning so I’m finding this routine works much better for me and centers me again for the rest of the day.
12:00 p.m.: Lunch break
Lunch is usually leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. I rarely eat lunch at my desk and make sure to have a screen-free break. My husband also works from home so usually, we take our lunch to the balcony and use this time to talk about how our days are going.
12:30-4:00 p.m.: Afternoon work session
After lunch, it’s back to work. I’ll be honest, it’s Wednesday and the Hump Day-itis really starts to hit me at this point. I resist the second cup of coffee and make myself a green tea instead.
I take my laptop and settle into the couch for a few hours of work—posture be damned! See, I told you things aren’t always so perfect.
At around 3:00 p.m. I feel my attention waning and I definitely don’t have the brain space to continue writing creatively anymore. So I decide to call it a day and instead catch up on some boring business admin tasks that I’ve been putting off.
At the end of the day, I make a list of priorities for the following day and put my laptop back on my desk in the office.
4:00-5:00 p.m.: Finish work and prep dinner
After work, I put on a podcast and start getting everything ready for dinner. Tonight’s menu is Pad Thai. I prep as much as possible so it’s ready to eat when I come home from my yoga class.
5:30-6:30 p.m.: Yoga class
Most days, I like to do some sort of exercise after work. Today it’s yoga.
As I mentioned earlier, exercise and movement are a huge part of my daily non-negotiables. Heading to the gym or a class at the end of the day helps me switch off, decompress, and is key for maintaining my mental health.
7:00-9:00 p.m. Dinner and winding down
After yoga, I come home and eat dinner. This is my downtime and I don’t check my emails or anything work-related. I’m also trying to reduce my phone time but... let’s just say it’s a work in progress.
Usually, after dinner, I hang out with my husband and we watch a show on Netflix or just catch up on our day.
9:00 p.m.: Reading in bed
I’m usually in bed by 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. I go to bed early to make sure I can sustain those early wake-up times.
I make some caffeine-free tea, grab a book from my bedside pile and get ready for bed. Tonight I’m reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. I read for about half an hour before I’m too tired to go on and fall asleep.
There you have it—a walk-through of a day in my life as a freelancer.
I try to follow the general framework of my ‘Ideal Day’ but not every day is perfect. It took me a lot of trial and error in my early days of freelancing to find a routine that works for me. Now, I can’t imagine not having one.
Find your freedom through freelancing
As the way we work continues to transform around us, more workers are looking for work that allows them better work-life balance and a more flexible lifestyle.
Becoming an independent professional might be the answer. According to an Upwork survey, 10 million Americans are considering freelancing. Among those, 73% cite the ability to work remotely or flexibly as a reason why.
While freelancing has many advantages; for many professionals, one of the best things about working independently is having the freedom and flexibility to set your own hours and create your own Ideal Day.
Take the first step towards a more flexible life. Sign up for a freelancer account on Upwork to get started.
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