How to work less and live more as a writer

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Are you tired of working all the time, with never a break in sight? It’s time for you to work less and live more…

Are you working too much?

Many writers do. So do many self-employed people. So do many ambitious people.

It’s work, work, work, followed by occasional bouts of panic. Followed by more work.

I was thinking about this problem recently, after re-reading a Cal Newport blog post from earlier in the year.

Newport tells the story of evolutionary biologist Stephen Stearns, who came of age — as both a scientist and a father — in the early 1970s. In those days, he was working 70- to 80-hour weeks. But, after the birth of his son, his wife gave him an ultimatum. If he worked in the evenings or on weekends, she would divorce him.

Here’s how Stearns recounts the story: “For the next twenty years I did not work nights or weekends, and I spent thousands of delightful hours with our sons while they were growing up,” he recalls. He describes his wife’s ultimatum as “very wise,” and goes on to say, “I am grateful to her.”

As I read this account, I was reminded of a similar tale from the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Speaking of how she went back to school after her baby Jane was born, Ginsburg wrote:

I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.

Many writers have difficulty juggling both work and everything else in life because they seem reluctant to declare firm working hours. Instead, they typically under-estimate how long work is going to take them. And they procrastinate so much that their work inevitably gets postponed until the evening or the weekend.

Writers who let this happen are not doing themselves any favours. I say this knowledgeably, as someone who used to work way too hard and way too long to little effective result. In fact, I remember the beginning of one family holiday many years ago where I was still in my office madly editing a book even as my husband was loading the kids into the car, ready to depart.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned since then:

  • Editing takes time, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Take a good long break before you start editing. I call this “incubation” and it helps you achieve better perspective by giving you some distance from your work. Always perform your content edit first (is your argument compelling enough? Does it include enough info, in the best possible order?) Then, do your stylistic edit (word choice, sentence length, spelling, grammar, typos etc.) second. You can watch a brief video on how to make editing less painful here.
  • It makes no sense to imagine that writing requires inspiration. Inspiration is elusive, and because you can never predict when it’s going to appear, you’ll be unable to declare a set working time. This is a mistake of the highest order. Writing requires more perspiration than inspiration. If you still feel in dire need of inspiration, try mindmapping instead.
  • Writing doesn’t have to be perfect. Embrace the concept of the crappy first draft. You can always make it better later.

But the single most important choice for working less is to plan how you’re going to spend your time. Parkinson’s Law applies to writing. If you give it six hours, it will take you six hours. But if you give yourself just three, you can often get it finished in that time.

I use time-blocking to make sure I’m able to squeeze all the juice out of each day, and as a result, I haven’t worked after 6 pm in many years. I don’t work on weekends, either, apart from occasional meetings on Sunday mornings, at a time that suits me to a tee.

Stephen Stearns achieved great professional success as a biologist, despite not putting in the same hours as his peers. Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a Supreme Court Justice, even as she juggled multiple family responsibilities. Of course, those two people were lucky. But as Seneca put it, “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.”

Life is too short to spend all of it working — or any of it feeling either guilty or inadequate. If you’d like to learn how to put writing in it’s proper, time-constrained place, check out my Get it Done group. I’m accepting new members for Dec. 1st.

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My video podcast last week discussed how to spend less time rewriting. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.

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Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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How do you stop yourself from working too much? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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