Freedom can be a bitch. While it’s immensely liberating to be your own boss, schedule your own deadlines, and quote your own prices, this autonomy comes with its own baggage. Most freelancers will agree that working in a corporate structure or a proper 9-5 allows them to focus more efficiently on tasks they’ve been assigned.

The vast majority of freelancers, digital nomads and remote workers I’ve met have fallen into the trap of procrastination, or become overwhelmed with the sheer diversity of work that they have to handle.

Key Concept:

Humans are eminently habitual creatures, but despite the popular notion espoused by self-help books, habit formation isn’t a simple matter of doing something for 21 days. Research has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit, whether good or bad.

To properly understand how the brain starts forming the patterns necessary for habit formation, one needs to understand how brains work on feedback loops.  It sounds technical, but just remember that there are three stages of a habit cycle.

1. Triggers/cues: Which prompt the habit
2. Routines: act of doing the habit itself
3. Rewards: Or your brain’s way of reinforcing the habit

Think of triggers as spark plugs that cause you to start engaging in a certain behaviour. Generally, habits are formed based on one of the following triggers: Time, people, place, emotions and preceding actions.

As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to implement a new habit than to try to eliminate an existing one. Which means that you’re going to encounter a lot more resistance if you’re keeping these factors the same and trying to change your behaviour.

The good news is that you can train your brain to engage with a new habit to achieve the results you desire.  It could be as simple as getting dressed in work clothes before you start working on a project, making sure that you don’t work in the same room you’re sleeping in.

If you have problems working from your bedroom, try having a separate place to work, like a dining room table or a nearby cafe.  If your mind is more active in the late afternoons, shift your work schedule around to make sure that you’re doing the most important work during those hours. You usually need to modify 2-3 of the 6 elements for your brain to realise that you’re trying to implement a new habit.

Sometimes, we may not understand why we end up with the habits that we do. Say, for example, that you want to cut down on your caffeine intake.  You’re used to having a coffee with your colleagues every afternoon at 3pm. The immediate conclusion that jumps to mind is that you’re craving caffeine, but it could be that what’s truly motivating your coffee break you is a need to socialise or to stretch your legs.

What you need to do in cases like this is to identify what your brain really desires, and implement an alternative measure, like drinking a non-caffeinated drink instead of coffee, or taking a short stroll away from your desk.

To help you practice, try employing the Pomodoro technique. It’s a simple, scientifically proven way to improve your work efficiency, and you can get started on it immediately. 

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and focus without distractions on working.
  2. At the end of the 25 minutes, reward yourself with a 5 minute break.
  3. One set of these ‘work-relax’ cycles is called a Pomodoro.
  4. After 4 Pomodoros, take a 15 – 20 minute break.
Raphael Lim

about Raphael

Raphael has interviewed Superman, gotten choked out by mixed martial artists, and sworn off food for a week without ending up looking like Gandhi. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. You can read his scribblings primarily in the Disrupter and Storyteller sections. He can be reached at

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