Better work-life balance for writers

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Are you working too hard? Finding a better work-life balance for writers should be a top priority….

I’m probably showing my age by admitting I remember Erma Bombeck (1927-1996). She was a humour writer with a syndicated newspaper column describing suburban home life in a funny way. She also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers.

I think she was the person who said that when it came to recipes, you could always get only two of three qualities: for example, they could be cheap and fast, or cheap and delicious, or fast and delicious — but never cheap, fast and delicious. 

Some people say the same is true of work. You can get an interesting job, a well-paying job, or a job that accommodates your family life. Pick two. 

When I worked as a writer and editor in the newspaper business for 10 years in the 1980s it was obvious to me that many of us valued the interest of our job. We had the chance to interview so many fascinating people. We got to spend our days writing or editing — tasks we enjoyed and that felt both worthwhile and intellectually rewarding. As well, the Watergate scandal of 1972 to 1974 had made journalism seem like important, democracy-affirming work. (That said, nowadays, fewer than half of US adults have confidence that journalists act in the best interest of the public.) 

But I could also see the downsides of the job. So many people desperately wanted to be journalists that management typically treated us rather badly. After all, if they lost a few dozen of us to resignations, there was a hoard of eager would-be journalists waiting in the wings, many of them willing to work for free.

These days, of course, journalism is barely a job anymore (killed by the influx of ads to the internet) and people who want to get into the writing business usually seek work in corporate communications departments or they become freelancers.

And herein lies the rub for freelancers: They get a job that’s interesting and sometimes (although not always) well-paying, but it’s usually insecure — i.e.: unfriendly to family life — and they end up trading their freedom for the chance to work evenings, weekends and holidays.

Talk to a freelancer about work-life balance and they’ll likely tell you it’s a luxury they can’t afford. 

If you’re facing struggles like this, let me share the views of Brian Dyson, former Vice Chairman and COO of Coca-Cola, who said: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air.

“You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

Working all the time — or even just thinking about work all the time —leads to fatigue, poor health, and lost time with friends and loved ones. Paradoxically, it also doesn’t lead to very good work. 

I often quote an experiment by productivity expert Chris Bailey in which he worked a 90-hour week, followed by a 20-hour week for one month. 

I find three of his conclusions particularly instructive. Here they are, in his own words:

  • “When I was working 90-hour weeks, I got a lot done, but only during the first few days of the week; after that I didn’t have the time or mental space to recharge, so my productivity practically fell off a cliff.
  • “In my view, productivity has absolutely nothing to do with how much you do; it has everything to do with how much you accomplish. After all, you can do a lot over the course of a day without actually accomplishing anything. For example, if you work 60-hour weeks, but you mindlessly chat with your coworkers, check your email all day long, and work on low-leverage tasks most of the day, you’re going to be a lot less productive than someone who works half that time, even though you do more actual work than they do.
  • “Just because you feel productive, doesn’t mean you’re actually productive… working longer hours makes you feel more productive, and a lot less guilty about the mountain of work you have to accomplish.”

After four decades of working with writers, I can see that many of them lose a lot of time by procrastinating, by working too hard and by never saying no to clients. If you want to achieve a better work-life balance for writers, here are seven suggestions:  

  1. Accept there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ work-life balance. Don’t beat yourself up for something that’s impossible to achieve. Some days you might need to focus more on work. On other days your family or home life might need more attention. Understand that success is measured over the week or month and never by the day.
  2. Anytime you want to change anything, start small. If you’ve had a 10-year habit of invariably putting your work first, understand that it’s going to take some time to run your life differently. Give yourself small goals (you might begin by refusing to work after 6 pm — assuming you’re not a night owl) and gradually increase your limits over time. Small changes are much easier to take on.
  3. Set a routine for yourself. I’ve seen many freelancers who delight in the ‘freedom’ of the job. They schlub around in their PJs and don’t start writing until 2 pm. Understand that you’ll pay a price for that kind of freedom. If the price is worth it, that’s great. If it’s not, refer back to point 2. 
  4. Use time blocking. I started using time-blocking about five years ago and I more than doubled my own productivity. I know this sounds unbelievable but it’s true. For me the biggest advantage of time blocking is that if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, I’ll identify the problem early in the morning. This gives me the chance to decide what I’m going to do and what I’m going to postpone. 
  5. Learn to say no. The realities of freelancing make it hard to turn down jobs. But keep control of your schedule so you can set boundaries for your working hours. If you work too hard, the quality of your work will only decline, putting future contracts at risk. If you have the opportunity for a job but not the time, consider sub-contracting the work so you will still make a little money. (For more on how to manage the feast or famine of freelance income, see here.)  
  6. Put away your phone more often. This point could have been a sub-category under “learn how to say no,” but it’s so important I’m highlighting it here. Way too many people spend way too much time on their phones. Delete apps that distract you (I’m looking at you, Facebook and Twitter). Remove email from your phone if you’re inclined to check it too often. You shouldn’t have to check your email while your son is playing soccer or your daughter is learning to drive. 
  7. Build compartments into your life. It can be hard to manage your family interests and your personal ones, and your work. It might help you to see your life as a series of compartments including exercise, family, holidays and intellectual pursuits. From time to time, you may need to put in long hours working. Just make sure that when you’ve met that deadline, you’re able to devote more time to your other compartments.

And the next time you’re thinking about work-life balance for writers, remember the words of Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”


Need some help developing a sustainable 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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What’s your secret to a better work-life balance for writers? 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 April 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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