When you become a freelancer, you get to enjoy the free part of it quite fast. That’s really easy. Not taking the metro, staying at home, reading and wearing ugly home clothes … is not much of a challenge. It’s the lancer part that can get a little tricky…

If you’re free to work anytime, then you have no particular reason to work at any particular time. If on top of that you have few clients to pressure you to deliver and you don’t have strict deadlines, if you’re supposed instead to develop your own expertise and your own particular projects… well… then you have a problem.

Self-discipline is often listed as one of the major qualities that make a good freelancer. And it’s true… but it doesn’t necessarily look like what people generally imagine.

For example I don’t sleep that much or do fun lazy things all day (I should do a lot more of those things by the way). No, in fact I was ruined by the grim Calvinist work-ethic culture that says work comes before pleasure. The Germans — such a Calvinist people! — say, “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen” (Work first, pleasure second). And unfortunately for me, it’s as if that phrase had been encoded in my DNA.

American Gothic: all work and no play

The problem when you’re home is that there is a lot of immediate work that you can effectively perform to get a good dose of immediate Calvinist work-ethic satisfaction. Kitchen clean. Good. Laundry. Good. Children taken care of because why waste money you don’t have on a babysitter. Good. (Calvinists detest waste). Nice meal cooked because healthy food is important for you and the children. Good.

But a chore-focused life leaves precious little room for long-term intellectual work, publications and expertise building.

I know a lot of people who believe self-discipline only means work vs sleep or work vs fun. But in my case it’s intellectual work (whatever that means) vs practical work. And believe me, the quick satisfaction of seeing something accomplished is irresistible, because intellectual work is never ‘accomplished’.

When you’ve been wrought by that culture (even without religion per se), you start off with a serious handicap. And the inner battle that takes place every day is one between your Calvinist self that praises manual work and practical achievement and your ‘amoral’ self that can produce enjoyment and wallow in free intellectual masturbation. The quick short-term ‘fix’ of everyday constraints and good manual work accomplished often beats the undetermined outcome of an activity that doesn’t come with quick fixes.

Ah, the instant gratification of watching a cat doing the dishes!!

For non-Calvinists the problem of self-discipline isn’t that much easier but at least they can enjoy themselves! For them it boils down to a regular battle between short-term pleasure and longer-term satisfaction. Plain and simple.

In both cases the self-discipline problem is one of short-term vs long-term arbitrage. It turns out we humans are clever and practical creatures who have the intuitive understanding that a bird in the hand in worth two in the bush. And no need to be Keynes to know we’ll all be dead in the long term…so wtf.

Self-discipline and impulse control have been the subject of many books and studies that show they are a good predictor of success in different areas (school, health and then professional success). Do you rely only on instant gratification or can you defer the gratification? That is the question.

Deferred gratification make the achievement of longer-term goals possible but it turns out we aren’t equal in our ability to delay gratification. So what does it take? Is it only a question of education? Or does it take more faith/confidence in one’s future?

The elusive and undetermined outcome of longer-term activity requires some kind of faith that takes a lot of learning and practice. I believe it’s also related to the question of self-confidence and the belief in one’s ability to achieve something. The more confident you are that you can do something, the better you can visualise your long-term goals and defer instant gratification. So learning that you can struggle your way from point A to point B is essential.

So here are the key things to work on:

  • Develop your ability to believe you can achieve a lot. The trick here is simply to start with modest objectives. You just feel much better when you’re successful (even with something very small). Mini-habits are therefore a very effective way of transforming your behavior.
  • Visualize your objectives realistically. Something you can literally see doesn’t seem so far off.
  • As much as possible, transform your long-term activity into a series of small achievable short-term goals (writing a book, requires writing chapters, which requires writing pages, lines…etc)
  • Repeat to yourself over and over again that CHORES AREN’T WORK. They are a form of laziness for those with a guilty conscience. They are a dangerous devil disguised as a judgemental shoulder angel.

Laetitia Vitaud with Switch Collective

Follow me on Twitter: @Vitolae

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I strongly recommend reading The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel on the subject of self-control.