Blogger in Residence, Chris Kerr, investigates how to make time for writing with a busy work life.
Fitting writing into working lives can be a struggle. It can be hard to see how you can possibly write after a long and exhausting day at work. That’s something I’ve grappled with in different ways when working as a technical writer and in hospitality. I asked Jack Heath and Zoya Patel for their tips on how to balance writing and work. Jack is an internationally bestselling author of thrillers for young people who also works in a bookshop. Zoya Patel is the founder and editor of Feminartsy and a writer, editor and communications professional.
What are your time management tips?
I keep a daily to-do list that splits up my tasks over days of the week. That means that I only do what’s on the list each day, rather than feeling stressed or pushing myself to try and do everything.
I also have an elaborate email filing system, which is crucial, because I get a lot of emails each day and they pertain to all kinds of different things, so it means I can keep track easily.
Write immediately after breakfast, when you’re not already drained by the day. Never check your email or open a web browser before lunch. Set up an out-of-office reply so people don’t expect immediate responses (mine reads, “I’m busy working on the sequel to The Cut Out, but I’ll reply when I can!”)
Track your progress – word count if you’re writing, page count if you’re editing. Use this data to set realistic deadlines. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s likely to be urgent (I use a “quiet hours” setting to block calls from everyone except my wife, my parents and my son’s school.) Schedule leisure time so it doesn’t creep into your writing time and vice versa. Get plenty of sleep, even if that means napping during the day.
How have your jobs helped and hindered your writing?
My day job is as Senior Manager, Communications and Corporate Relations at YWCA Canberra, which is an amazing feminist not-for-profit. I get to write a lot at work, and it means that my ‘writing muscle’ is always stretched.
However, my role is quite demanding, and often I’m too mentally strung out to work on my creative projects at home. It’s definitely a balancing act!
Selling fast food inspired a gruesome deep-fryer scene in Money Run. But writing for 20 hours a week is hard if you’re working another career for 40 hours a week – you’ll burn out quickly unless you love both jobs.
Is quitting your day job(s) a realistic goal, or a dangerous fantasy?
It really depends on what your goals for your writing are. I decided to pursue a career in communications because I knew I wanted a certain kind of lifestyle, and that achieving that on a freelance income would be very difficult. I also love my day job, so I don’t ever really contemplate quitting!
That said, I think all writers dream of being able to focus entirely on their writing, and I think for many this can be a realistic goal, if they have a viable freelance career or potential funding from another source.
Five years after my first book came out I was working five days a week at another job. After seven years I’d cut that down to three. It’s now been ten years, and I’m only at the day job one day a week. Quitting is realistic, but I don’t want to. My advice to writers who can’t yet sustain themselves is the same as my advice to anyone else in that position: try to find a job you’re at least a little good at in a field that interests you at least slightly and which meets your minimum financial goals. No mean feat, I know – but then you can spend fourteen hours a week writing and reading without worrying about starving to death.
Hearing Zoya and Jack’s advice led me to the following conclusions:
- Set realistic and achievable goals for every day to avoid getting overwhelmed
- Avoid wasting energy on willpower by using technology to help enforce your schedule, e.g. by screening distracting calls
- Freelance work can be a great additional source of income, but a combination of more stable jobs also works well
Next time you find yourself thinking you’ll start writing that novel or play when things have calmed down at work or when you’re on holiday, remember this Doris Lessing quotation: ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’ Hopefully, following the advice of Jack and Zoya in this article will make writing around work that little bit less impossible.
Chris Kerr is a poet, reviewer, editor, publisher, former technical writer and budding copywriter. He co-edited issue 62 of UK Poetry magazine Magma and edited a book for Dead Ink. Chris is an assistant editor of the April 2016 issue of Meniscus. He wrote a poem about Chernobyl that appeared in Ambit just after he’d moved to Canberra from London. He’s currently working on a series of collaborative code poems and aspires one day to write a poem about tennis that’s good enough not to bore readers who couldn’t care less about tennis. Chris is still happy that Lana Del Rey set T. S. Eliot to music on her last album. You can follow him on Twitter @c_c_kerr.