The Born Freelancer on the Power of Lists

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


In reply to the often asked question, “What is the secret of successful freelancing?” I sometimes give a sardonic answer. How else can you give a precise answer to such a complex question in just a few words? I recently found myself responding, “I make lists” which evoked the anticipated laughter. It was only later upon reflection that I realized I had inadvertently spoken the truth. I do make a lot of lists. And keeping good lists is one of the secrets (or at least one of my secrets) of successful freelancing. It’s something I guess I’ve done all my freelance life and so never really thought twice about it. Until now.

On the surface, list keeping and the freelance life might seem to be oxymoronic. List keeping can appear to be contrary in spirit to the presumed freedoms of freelancing. In reality, lists are the backbone of any freelance lifestyle. They have certainly enabled me to live and work as a freelancer, creating a lifestyle pretty much suited to my own personal likes and dislikes. Without lists my work (indeed my whole life) would be an unseemly miasma from which no productivity would ever emerge.


Lists instill order

Call it a structure or simple organization but without some kind of order successfully living the freelance life is impossible. Nine to fivers rarely need worry about creating order, it is routinely imposed upon them by their employers. In fact, structure and order are usually the last things nine to fivers have to worry about. It is more often than not a source of endless resentment. The story for we freelancers is the exact opposite. Other than externally imposed work deadlines, it can be far too easy to drift through the days and nights without ever finding any proper external anchors in life. Therefore most freelancers must make up their own daily structure – internal anchors, if you will – in order to facilitate our chosen lifestyle. Lists are among the most useful, powerful and easiest-to-create tools in this pursuit.

Each of us will use lists in a slightly different way to suit our own personality and work/lifestyle habits. I’m not going to tell you exactly how to use them; I’m just going to explain to you how I use mine. I hope the illustration will prove useful. It’s a system that has evolved throughout the years without any deliberate planning hence some of its rather byzantine aspects. Now you may prefer to generate lists using your smart phone or on your laptop or desktop. There are all kinds of apps for lists, I won’t go into them here. Although I have some lists on my computer and some on my cell phone for the most part I use old-school paper and pen lists which work perfectly well without ever worrying about dead batteries, being hacked or corrupted files. But whichever platform you choose the principles behind their use remain the same.

I use lists to organize and arrange my freelancing life in order to bring absolute clarity to my day and make clear at a glance the current status of my scheduled work activities.


Temporal lists

Some of my lists fall into this category. Generally they refer to deadlines. I have lists of work to do, calls to make, emails to send, books to read, etc. These usually get transferred to some kind of a calendar arrangement so that their proximity to the present time can be seen and – more importantly – understood immediately. Such categories as “Immediate”, “Pending” and “Soon” are also very useful. I file them clearly in view so I see them first thing when I sit down at my desk to work.


Subject/Topic lists

I have lists on seemingly every topic I am interested in. I have lists of ideas for stories, ideas for plays, ideas for commercials, etc. In fact anytime any idea comes to mind – no matter how offbeat or unusable it may seem (well, OK, I do some censoring of totally inane ideas!) I make a note of it and add it to a list.


Platform lists

Related to the above, these lists are grouped/sorted by the platform or medium most likely to utilize such ideas. So I list some ideas listed under radio, under TV, under print, etc.

So, OK, you get the idea. If I have something to do or ideas that might possibly translate one day into work I make a note and add it to the appropriate list. Now, you may ask, how do you physically sort them?


The view from the wall

I use a large wall bulletin board subdivided into the many different sections into which I like to subdivide the entries as noted above affixing them with a thumbtack or tape. Each idea or action to do gets its own small index card, the primary key words highlighted in bold and any further details written in smaller print beneath. To do or action cards are usually a different colour (often yellow to get my attention) than ideas for stories (which are usually on plain white index cards). So I can look at the bulletin board at a glance and see all the lists of things that interest me clearly delineated and placed in their appropriate place on the board.


List status

Their status is denoted with further markings. An unmarked card tells me it is still “pending”. I am thinking about it. Cards may stay that way for months or may get removed and filed in a file box (rarely thrown away!) for a semiannual troll through old ideas to see if something usable I’ve missed still lurks there. A circle around the subject line tells me the action or idea is actively under consideration. I could be spending time musing on an idea or I could be gathering the necessary research in order to take some action or another. A big check mark means I am doing the action or actively working on the idea in some form or another. When the idea or action is complete it is removed and placed in my “done” file box, to be later looked over to see if anything had been missed before being finally tossed out.

If it is an action to be taken, such as a pitch to be made, it then gets transferred to a large wall calendar below the bulletin board. Here it is placed on the date it is to be achieved by or else completed. Also on the calendar are work deadlines boxed in a heavy border so I can see immediately what is due and when. I look at calendar pages for this month and next month simultaneously.

So you can see my preferred method when creating lists is to write ideas or actions to take down on separate pieces of paper or small index cards. (Update: I have recently moved over to 3 inch squares of bio-friendly recycled paper in the interests of the environment). These I can arrange how I like on my big bulletin board and mark accordingly to indicate status. Sometimes the juxtaposition of different ideas on these pages will incite a giant step forward. Creativity is often seeing connections between dissimilar concepts or ideas.

I also keep a daily work diary which consolidates all work deadlines and scheduled appointments. It is consulted and updated on a daily basis as required. This stays on my work desk, always open to the current day.


Pocket lists

I also keep lists in my pocket. That is, when I am out and about and ideas come to me I immediately jot them down in a small notebook I keep in my pocket. If the idea comes to me more fully formed I also have a larger journal sized notebook that I keep in my day pack which can always also be brought out and used anywhere on location to keep track of new thoughts and ideas. These then are transcribed and modified whenever I get home and added to my lists of ideas up on my wall. I used to keep a small portable tape recorder with me to record ideas but found that I could never get around to transcribing the tapes in any reasonable amount of time. I still have dozens of those arcane tiny mico-mini tapes from the last century that turn up behind books on shelves no doubt abounding with (old) wonderful ideas that will, alas, never get used. I’ve just fallen too far behind on them. And so they get carefully refiled away behind my books.


Handwritten vs. digital lists

I know one freelancer who calls himself on his cell phone when he is away from his office and leaves himself a message anytime gets a great idea. So when he gets home he has a long list of audible ideas on his answering machine to transcribe. Another uses her smart phone to text herself messages in a similar way. Both are great ideas. The point is not to lose any of your ideas. By the time you’ve walked/driven home and sit down to recall what was that great idea you had – it will be gone forever.

However, I find the physical act of writing ideas down in their primary form – as they come to me – useful in freeing up the creative process later on. It must be part of how my brain processes stuff. It’s as if in handwritten form the ideas are more like stem cells – they could grow into almost any form I want. Once I get to keyboard them in, the ideas have moved forward into a different space in my head and – like specific organs of the body (to follow through on my stem cell analogy) – they now seem to be geared towards a specific purpose and usage.


The takeaway

Lists give me the structure I need to fully enjoy the freedoms of the freelance life. There are any number of ways to deal with them. If you are just beginning to freelance you may wonder about the necessity of keeping such lists. You may think yourself a terribly well organized individual not requiring such crutches. All well and good. You may be able to organize and make lists in your head, a great gift indeed. But one day you may find your days drifting by without any sense of accomplishment or achievement. You may wonder what has gone wrong. I hope this post will reassure you that, in most cases, nothing is the matter. You are just lucky enough to call yourself a freelancer and as such need to impose a little more discipline and structure into your life. Perhaps you will look back at this post and recognize that the solution is as easy as making a list of whatever you want to do next. And after you’ve got over the hurdle of making that first list, the rest will be much easier. You may even one day come to agree with me that lists are invaluable to your success as a freelancer.


For inspiration

Check out my favourite website of lists, Lists of Note. I doubt I will ever compile any lists nearly as entertaining but it’s nice to have goals to which to aspire!


Posted on September 19, 2013 at 9:07 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Amy Jo Ehman
    on October 9, 2013 at 4:38 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I don’t make lists per se, but I have a wall full of sticky notes. Sometimes there are sticky note headings, which I guess makes a vertical list. It’s always satisfying to make use of an idea and take that sticky note off the wall. 🙂

    • Written by editor
      on October 10, 2013 at 11:36 am
      Reply · Permalink

      That’s a good idea. I only have digital lists… in an app on my phone and laptop. I’m starting to think it might be good to have physical lists as well. Sticky notes and white boards are more tangible than pixels. Maybe more inspirational, too.

  2. Written by The Born Freelancer
    on October 15, 2013 at 12:00 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Amy, many thanks, that is an excellent idea. Post-it sticky notes make an instant bulletin board out of any available wall space. It’s also perfect for writers on the go working out of a temporary work space.

    And yes, I totally agree, there is something very psychologically fulfilling when you remove a “used” file card/post it note from its space!

    Rachel – physical lists rock! Give them a try, perhaps using Amy’s idea, you’ll be amazed how extra useful they can be. I believe our brains interact with them differently than we do with digital lists, in effect facilitating the creative process.

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