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Friday, September 28, 2012

An Overlooked (but Essential) Way to Become More Productive

What does it take to be a successful freelancer? Yes, you have to be able to write well, market yourself, develop relationships with clients, manage your time, and stay focused. You may know that already. When I speak to would-be freelancers about making the transition from employee to business owner, though, I suggest that they commit to a regular exercise program, if they don't have one already. 

Writing is a sedentary job. And while using your brain is mentally draining, it requires little physical effort. I believe one of the reasons I’ve maintained a fairly high level of productivity (essential now that I freelance part-time) is that I’ve made working out a priority, even when I’m busy.

In my 30s, I ran five or six days a week. It was a great stress-reliever--at least until I started getting injured regularly. Now that I’m a 40-something, I need a more balanced fitness routine. I still run but not as often; I bike, lift weights, and do yoga. I try to make it to the gym four or five days a week. I know that after two or three days of nothing more physical than hauling my toddler around, my back gets stiff. I get cranky. I have trouble sleeping. I need the physical challenge and release of exercise to balance out the mental stress of work and life, so I make time for it.

Almost all of the most productive writers I know are dedicated athletes in some sense of the word. They run. They dance. They swim. They spin. They do yoga. They’ve figured out that a healthy body doesn’t just look and feel good; it makes for a more productive brain, too.

As a freelancer, I need my brain. And I need to work. Yet it's hard to shut that brain off. I’m always thinking about the assignments on my desk, encroaching deadlines, the amount of money I’m making, my plans for the next year, when I’m going to find time to write another novel, you name it. One of the rare times that I’m able to turn off the incessant mental chatter is when I’m standing on the pedals of a spin bike pushing through another two-minute sprint interval or trying to balance in triangle pose during yoga. Exercise that demands your full attention—I’m talking high-intensity, focused effort—shuts off your freelance brain, at least for a while. I need that.
A stroll around the block is better than nothing, but pushing yourself produces bigger benefits for your body and brain. Physical effort that causes discomfort also produces endorphins, which ease pain, decrease anxiety, and improve your mood. In other words, suffering (at least a small amount of it for a short period of time) is a good thing.
Rising to physical challenges makes you more able to handle mental challenges as well. The reason is what researchers call self-efficacy. Studies prove that mastering physical skills (whether it’s doing a headstand or successfully training to complete a 10K run) improve your self-efficacy, or your belief in your ability to perform a task. That self-efficacy bleeds into other areas as well, which means you’ll be more confident, not only in your writing skills, but in your ability to weather an ever-changing freelance landscape and to continue to grow and develop as a self-employed businessperson. That’s a sizable payoff for producing a little sweat on a regular basis.

Convinced yet? (Hey, remember I’m a personal trainer too, so hopefully I’ve made the case for exercise.) If you already work out, you know all of this is true. If you don’t, start. If you’re worried about time away from your business, count your workout time as work time. The productivity and stress relief that result from working out will more than make up for "lost time" at your desk.

**This post was drawn from Secret 87: Get (and stay) physical from my latest book, Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. Last chance to win a free copy of it by entering the giveaway here!  

And readers, weigh in. What's your usual workout regime? Do you find that getting physical makes you more productive? How so? 


  1. Great post, Kelly. I am currently running and walking but I need to add more stretching so will investigate yoga next. Working out gives me more energy but I've not yet been able to channel that directly into writing. I'm getting more done in general but still need to prune my do list to allow for more writing.

  2. Thanks for the well-timed kick, Kelly. I'm going outside, right now.

  3. I totally agree, Kelly, and I think that applies to almost any job. When I take the time to walk outside, rake the leaves, do Pilates or yoga or run on the treadmill, I feel happier, calmer and end up being more productive. Here's to exercise!

  4. Chiming in a bit late (I'm playing catch-up on blog reading) but I love this post, Kelly. I started running earlier this year after not having exercised in many years (or, let's be honest, ever), but it's the one time of my day, when it's all about me. No child, no husband, no work. Just me and my thoughts. And I love it. It's definitely made me more productive, too.