by Robyn Roste 

One damp, dreary winter’s night I sat in bed staring at my phone. I felt the same as usual—bored and listless. On paper everything was great, my days were filled with work, friends and activities. The problem? I fell into bed each night drained rather than energized.

I did a quick review of my average day and realized I was stuck in a passive routine. Each morning I dragged myself out of bed and got ready for work. I spent my day pouring myself into my job before going to the gym or out with friends, followed by watching television until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Even though I loved my work, I was in a rut. I needed something that would fuel my creative spark and refill my energy.

The problem with work

No matter how amazing the gig, over time everything becomes a job. At some point in my work life I had set aside my personal projects, not realizing it was those creative exercises that gave me drive and passion. I was relying on work to energize me but it was doing the opposite.

I also recognized I was trying to jam my creative exercises into the evening, after a full day of work and other activities. Since my side projects were often unpaid, they were easy to neglect when I was tired or feeling uninspired.

Once I honestly assessed where I was at, I knew I couldn’t keep pushing the things that mattered to me to the end of the day. I was too exhausted and emotionally drained by that point.

Prioritize personal projects by doing them first

I decided to make some shifts in order to reboot my enthusiasm and energy. While I did consider changing my work, I knew it wasn’t my core problem. I had allowed my life to become unbalanced and I needed to get it back in alignment. The first step was rearranging my day to tackle my personal projects first.

After about six months of trial and error, I developed a morning routine I could thrive in. I didn’t know if I could be creative within time constraints but my desire for change outweighed my internal objections, and over time my body and mind adjusted to the routine.

Prioritizing my personal projects was the first step in designing a life I was excited about. By spending the first part of my day on the things most important to me, I took responsibility for my life. I stopped blaming my work for preventing me from achieving my dreams. And I stopped viewing time with friends and family as a distraction.

Approaching each day with intention has allowed me to rediscover joy and purpose in spite of the daily grind.

Building creative habits into your work

But of course, there are other ways to balance freelance work with personal projects. Wedding photographer Jennifer Pinkerton has figured out how to maintain her creativity within the constraints of her job.

While shooting weddings is her dream job, and she stays fully booked year after year, she also knows her clients expect certain shots and she must deliver them over and over.

To prevent the repetition from becoming tedious, she approaches each wedding with a creative challenge: attempt one shot she has never tried before. The result may never see the light of day but it’s enough to keep her engaged and motivated in what could quickly become boring and mundane.

“That routine, that stability of knowing what is coming allows me to branch out into being creative while still staying in the realm of what my customer needs,” she said. “I go into every wedding knowing that there is going to be one shot, one element of my day, of my job, that’s going to be new, something I’ve never done before. And in that way I’m fostering creativity while also making sure I’m being consistent and producing a work that I can be proud of.”

Because most weddings happen on weekends, this also affords Pinkerton time during the week to work on personal projects.

“By taking time to create for myself, by prioritizing that, I am not taking away from the work I’m doing for clients but giving myself the opportunity to feed the creative side of my artistry,” she said.

The key to balancing freelance work with personal projects

Building good habits and routines can play a huge part in creative productivity. Although this appears counter-intuitive, when we don’t create a structure for our personal projects then we leave them for “when I have time,” or “when I feel inspired.” When we don’t make time, chances are there won’t be time.

No matter if it’s paid work or a personal project, all work takes sacrifice. If it’s a side hustle then the sacrifice could involve saying no to social outings or extra sleep.

If it’s building in time for creativity or art then it may mean saying no to paid gigs that don’t align. The key is finding balance between work and play, and prioritizing a healthy balance.

Protect your time and your creative vision.

Robyn Roste is a freelance writer and is passionate about helping freelancers market themselves.