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As a proud expat of the 9-to-5 culture, the freedom of freelance thrills me. I work only on projects that interest me, and only when I feel like it. I can (and often do) work in yoga pants. There’s no clock to punch and no boss to moan about. That’s the dream, right?

Not always.

After saying “toodle-oo” to my previous career, I struggled to set a schedule. While I liked the freedom of freelance work, I also craved predictability. Without structure, I fell into a funk. I rarely changed out of my pajamas. Cheetos became my best friend. It was like my passion and motivation hit a wall.

I fell into something that I like to call the “possum effect.”

I spent my childhood summers in rural Oklahoma, where I stumbled across my fair share of wildlife. One summer, my dad was trying to trap a mischievous skunk that had been pestering our chickens. He never caught that skunk, but night after night, without fail, he always caught a large gray-haired possum. After feasting on the skunk bait, the possum fell asleep in the cage and had zero intention of leaving.

Night came, and we opened the cage for the possum once again. I thought he would run free, but he did nothing. Nada. He just sat there. All he had to do was step out of the cage and he would be free. But he liked the safety and predictability of the cage, even if it meant he didn’t have his freedom.

I unknowingly fell into the same dilemma. I was a freelancer now and my cage was open. There was no mandatory work day or silly quotas to fill. I could do whatever I wanted with my time! Why did I choose to stay in the cage, clad in flannel and covered in Cheeto dust?

It was time to shake things up. I realized I needed a set schedule to ignite my passion again.

The freelancer’s schedule

The beauty of freelance work is that you’re the boss. Every freelancer and line of work is different, and that means you have to set up a schedule that works for you. Sure, it’s helpful to sneak a peek at other freelancers’ schedules, but it’s your job to find what really works.

Some freelancers work just fine without a set schedule. I salute you, brave people, for doing this. I found that I’m not one of those people, and I need a schedule to stay honest.

It took some trial and error, but I finally found a schedule that works for me. Here are the five essential tasks I schedule into my day to stay focused, healthy, and successful. Which ones are on yours?

Email

Email makes the world go ‘round. But you know what? It’s a total time drain. I fall down an endless rabbit hole of to-dos and long-winded emails. What I thought would be a quick minute of email becomes a half hour ordeal.

No more! I now set aside two times each day specifically for checking my email. I check in the morning to put out fires and set priorities for the day. I also check at the end of the day to make tomorrow’s to-do list.

Work

This is the meat and bones of my daily schedule. The coup de gras. The money maker.

I section off four hours each day solely for client work. I took care to schedule my work time when I’m at my most productive. I get into a flow state in two two-hour chunks each day, and it works! I get tons of work out the door with ample time for other tasks.

Education

Freelancers often overlook this, but education is a critical part of our job. We have to stay competitive to succeed. The first step to being the best freelancer on the block is to stay educated.

I schedule thirty minutes every day to learn something new about my industry. Whether I’m listening to a podcast while folding laundry or catching up on Search Engine Journal first thing in the morning, I make it a point to stay informed.

Exercise

I prioritized exercise during my stint in the 9-to-5, but it wasn’t easy. When you’re chained to a desk for up to 10 hours a day, it’s tough to make time for more than a short walk to the break room. However, now that I freelance, I have ample time for exercising how I want, when I want.

I exercise twice a day now. I’ll either walk around the block or do yoga in the mornings. In the late afternoon I head off to the gym to use their lap pool. I even got a standing desk so I can avoid sitting down all day.

However you do it, make sure there’s room in your schedule to move. Regular exercise helps you stay more focused and energized, which is something we all need.

Breaks

My brain works best with periods of intense focus followed by short breaks. While you could define exercise or education as breaks, I don’t. I intentionally schedule 15-minute breaks throughout the day to goof off. I let myself scroll through Instagram, play with my cat, and watch Netflix.

Freelancer burnout is real. I know the temptation to work, work, work and then work some more. But if I don’t make myself take a break, I get fed up with writing. And isn’t that the point of freelancing to begin with? To be our own boss? To live a life that’s more authentic and enjoyable?

I will always prioritize breaks because they help me be a better worker.

The bottom line

You don’t have to dictate your freelance schedule like it’s boot camp. Heck, you don’t even have to follow the same schedule every day. But if you’re like me, it’s important to set up some kind of structure to stay honest. The lack of structure can result in burnout, sadness, lack of motivation, and even freelance failure.

Embrace the freedom of the freelance lifestyle while keeping yourself accountable. Set up a daily schedule that works for you, not one that keeps you in a cage.

Kenzi is a full stack marketer turned freelance writer. She specializes in writing content that scores more business for marketing agencies.