How to work alone

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Do you struggle with being alone? If you’re a writer, it’s essential to learn how to work alone…

I enjoy meeting people. I’m cheerful and friendly. I love chatting with friends. I never fear speaking in front of an audience.

These are all characteristics of an extrovert.

But, but….

If I’m tired or stressed or worn out, I want to be alone. I don’t get energy from other people; I get slightly worn out. Further, I find it comforting to be alone. When everyone else — kids and husband — is out of our house, a great sense of freedom and relaxation washes over me. I get to be me. I don’t have to be in charge of anything or put on a show. I don’t even have to talk.

These are the characteristics of an introvert.

Researchers call people like me “ambiverts,” meaning that we have characteristics from both the introvert and extrovert camps. That said, I’m not going to argue that this is the best way to be. We human beings can’t help how we’re hard-wired — our personalities are coded into our DNA in much the same way as height or eye colour. (Although, undoubtedly, our personalities are also shaped by how we were raised.)

But being an ambivert is very useful for anyone self-employed. (You need to be an extrovert to sell and you need to be an introvert to work from home alone.) And being an ambivert or introvert certainly helps writers. Why? Because we have to spend most of our time alone. I’ll just state this baldly: If you don’t like being alone, you shouldn’t become a writer.

But even if you enjoy being alone, the exquisite loneliness of writing can still be tough. Here are five ways to deal with that:

1 – Give your day structure

Mornings are an exceptionally valuable time for most people. They have more energy. They’re more decisive. Their phones haven’t started ringing off the hook. Some of them, however, make the mistake of spending their first morning time on email. Not me. I write. I spend at least the first 30 minutes of every day writing and then the next 30 organizing my day. After that, I try to squeeze in as much writing in the morning as possible, around meetings that for whatever reason can’t be held in the afternoon. After lunch, I edit and attend to meetings. We all have different “high energy” times — and I know some of you are night owls. But know your own style and set up a day that works for you. If you’re happy with your accomplishments, and happy with how you’re tackling them, you’re going to feel better about being alone.

2 – Manage your internal editor

One of the reasons many people don’t like being alone is that they have fewer distractions. They can’t stroll by the water cooler and strike up a conversation with a colleague. This means that they’re forced to confront the ugliest, nastiest most fearsome person in the world – their own internal editor. This is the person who thinks you can’t do anything right. Who scorns every sentence you write. Who believes that the world might be a better place if you didn’t inflict any of your writing upon it. In my Extreme Writing Makeover I offer a lesson on how to deal with this unhelpful presence, and an entire chapter of my next book will be devoted to the subject. But what I want emphasize here is that you need to manage this voice. Start by being conscious of it. Know that all writers — even the ultra-successful ones — face exactly the same voice. You are not especially untalented or hard-done-by because you have this voice. It’s universal. Expect it and don’t let it derail you.

3 – Constrain your working hours

The hardest thing about being a writer is that you could work 24/7 and still not have enough time. Be disciplined enough to know when to stop. I end every day at 6 pm (except for the first Monday in every month when I have a group that meets in the evening to discuss writing.) I may start at 6 am but rest assured I never work a 12-hour day. I typically take a long lunch and I do all sorts of errands and personal stuff in the middle of the day so I don’t have to do it on the weekends. If you don’t give yourself enough time to do things other than writing, I guarantee you will have nothing to write about.

4 – Find reasons to get out of your office regularly

You may be working alone but that doesn’t mean you need to be a hermit. Meet colleagues for coffee to talk about your mutual writing issues. Join a group. Volunteer for something. (It doesn’t even have to be writing related. For example, I’m a high school debate coach.) The regular human contact will help your writing, not hurt it. And, if nothing else, get out for a walk in a nearby park to reinvigorate yourself.

5 – Get support online

One of the great things about the 21st century is that we are no longer constrained by the expense and time required by travel. We can simply let our fingers walk across our computer keyboards and meet with people around the world. When I started my business, I joined an online group (not related to writing) and was a very active member for about six years. We had a forum that allowed us to chat with each other and I made many friends who sustained me during some challenging days. I keep in touch with many of them, still. Find a writing group you can join or even comment on blogs, like this one.

The act of writing is precious. Your words link you with hundreds of thousands of other writers from the past and future. I like to imagine our words as pieces in a chain that join us across time and space. You may be the only person in the room. But when you write, you are never truly alone.

How does working alone affect you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to George Hume, the winner of this month’s book prize, Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullam for a July 5/16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of So You Think You Know English, by Gordon Osmond. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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