Hi everyone! Today we’re talking about balancing writing with a full-time job!
*Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator/Editor: Akshaya Raman
Ashley: I work in publishing but it’s not really writing related. I’m a digital production assistant, which is a fancy way of saying I work in eBooks. So I actually do quite a bit of reading, but no writing.
Katy: My job is extremely not writing related–I work at a small digital agency in Oakland as a web developer. So, you know, writing code, yelling at errors, that sort of thing.
Christine: I work as a literary assistant to an agent, so while I don’t write creatively, I definitely spend most of my day thinking about books. I also do a lot of reading, and I write and look over edit letters and submission materials for editors, so I guess it’s writing-adjacent, if that makes sense.
Christine: Well, I’ve been lucky enough to actually have deadlines for the big projects I’ve undertaken since I started my job, so my goals are kind of set for me. I just have to figure out a way to do all the work in the time allotted to me.
Katy: In the short-term, I try to block out my writing time for the week ahead of time so I have some idea of how much I’ll be able to accomplish that week. I’ll usually have a list of tasks that need to get done–scenes to rewrite or edit, a plot problem to brainstorm–and I try to use my best guess on how many sessions it will take me to get those done. For long-term goals, I like to set deadlines once I’m a little further into the process and have a good idea of what it’s going to take to get it finished.
Ashley: Since I stare at a computer screen all day at work, I tend to write in my notebook during the weekdays to a) keep from going blind and b) take some of the pressure off. It doesn’t feel “real” when I’m just scribbling in a notebook, so I’m not paralyzed by that inner-perfectionist.
Keeping count of words in a notebook can be hard, so the weekdays are when I have those simpler goals: to just plan a scene or write that dialogue I’ve been struggling with. Then, on the weekends, I work on my computer and can set more specific goals regarding word count.
Katy: Ashley that brings up a great point I really wanted to touch on. While I did say my job isn’t writing related at all, it is physically exactly the same as writing i.e. I am sitting in front of a computer, staring at the screen. It really took me by surprise what a toll this took on me, both physically and emotionally, to be doing that 40 hours a week PLUS doing it all evening and all weekend.
Ashley: Yes, exactly! And even though my work isn’t creative in the traditional sense, I’m still making small decisions throughout the day and that really tires out my brain. I think that’s why I find brainstorming easier during the weekdays because those don’t feel quite like decisions?
Katy: Totally. When you’re trying to figure out how to balance writing and work, you usually think of it in terms of time. Yeah like, great! I get home from work at 6:30, I eat and decompress, and then I’ll have a solid 3 hours. But you don’t really factor in how mentally tired out you already are, both from decision fatigue and from the fatigue of sitting in front of a computer all day.
Christine: What Katy and Ashley have said about being surprised by the emotional toll of a full time job is so, so true–I definitely try to keep my workload smaller and simpler on work nights than weekends so that I can actually make progress.
Christine: HA! The eternal question. Okay, like, the thing about writing with a full time job is that, if you’re serious about publication, it’s really like you’re doing TWO full time jobs. And that takes a toll on a person.
Katy: It took a LOT of getting used to. To be honest, for the first 6-8 months of working full time, I really got next to nothing done when I sat down, even if I had the whole evening to write. It takes a long time to figure out how to manage a full time job. It is SO different from being in school, which is all I knew until then. And then to figure out how to manage a full time job AND find time to write — it’s a lot. Especially if it’s your first time supporting yourself/paying your own bills/etc etc
Ashley: I’ve always been a slow writer, though it’s something I’ve only recently come to terms with. So making sure that I write and/or plan (which is half the battle for me because I’m not a natural at plotting) everyday even if it’s only for a little while is key. And I usually try to make up for my low word counts during the week by devoting at least one full day of writing on the weekends.
Katy: Yeah, the weekend is really where the bulk of my writing gets done. It goes back to the decision fatigue. On the weekend I have a clearer mind, I have more distance from the stress of work and I can totally immerse myself in writing.
Christine: I do write after work though. Almost every day. Frankly, I have a personality type that puts a lot of pressure on myself to meet deadlines, whether they’re mine or someone else’s. And I wouldn’t be able to draft and revise nearly as quickly if I only wrote on weekends.
Katy: I think a big part of it has been knowing when to recognize that my brain is done for the night. Or recognize if writing is just not gonna happen, for whatever reason. And being okay with calling it a night early and reading/watching TV instead.
Christine: I’m also trying to work towards is being okay with the days that the writing just isn’t happening, and learning how to forgive myself. Because sometimes, all the mental energy I used up on my day job makes it incredibly difficult to get the words out. And punishing myself for that will just make me more tired and stressed the next day.
Katy: Oh, absolutely. I have definitely been known to get super down on myself for not being able to do as much as I thought I should. In retrospect, I should have been a lot more patient with myself. I did not account for the time it would take me to adjust. Now I’ve been doing this for two and a half years, so I have a much better handle on it. I know how much writing I can feasibly do in a week. I know my mood and energy patterns way better. I know how being busy (or NOT busy) at work can affect my productivity. and above all, I know how to take a break when I feel like I’m burning out. It took a really, really long time to figure that out, though.
Christine: I mean, look, real talk: pushing myself as hard as I do means sacrifice. When I’m under a deadline, I spend a lot of time hiding in my room, typing furiously (sorry roommates! I love you, I swear). I’ve learned how to multitask on errands and see as many friends as possible in one gathering because I just don’t have a lot of time to be social. It’s tough sometimes, but it’s my dream, so…I’m going to make it happen.
Katy: There are only a few things I know I can always do on weekdays–mainly line editing, reading through stuff, research. For most other things, drafting, solving plot problems, rewriting large chunks of scenes or chapters–I try to do that on the weekend.
Christine: I just double my weekday writing goals on weekends. So like, if I’m aiming to revise one chapter a day on weekdays, for weekends, I make it two. Although I think we’ve established by now that I have zero chill, so kids, don’t be like me. Be sensible.
Katy: I do inevitably have to draft or rewrite during the week sometimes, but I’m realistic about how much is really going to get done and I don’t try to push myself over that. And let me also say it took me a super long time to figure that out. Like. As in… I figured it out this year.
Ashley: I also do quite a bit of brainstorming during the week, I think because I enjoy it so much? Brainstorming was what I used to do before I was a “real writer” (okay, it was daydreaming), and that has always been something I’ve enjoyed and that doesn’t often feel like work.
Katy: Omg we haven’t talked about my favorite topic yet though, which is INTERNET BLOCKERS. Block the internet kids.
Christine: Also, yes, Katy. Internet blockers are a total lifesaver. Everyone’s got those websites that suck them in–you know what they are. Make it impossible for you to access them while you’re working on your writing.
Ashley: Rewards are also super helpful for motivating me on weeknights! I try to have the reward fit the task, so if I do something big like write and/or revise an entire scene, then I get to watch two episodes of a TV show. If I do something smaller, like line edit or brainstorm, then I’ll have a glass of wine or some chocolate covered almonds.
Katy: I also will sometimes give myself deadlines for when I know a book I’m super looking forward to comes out and as a reward for finishing that milestone, whatever it is, I get to read guilt-free!
Christine: HAHAHAHA. I am the wrong person to ask this question to. I am a total workaholic with absolutely no idea how to tamp down the weird dual guilt of going to social functions and not writing OR writing instead of going to social functions.
Ashley: It’s tough! I often go too far on one side or the other. I either neglect life things in favor of writing, which isn’t healthy, or I neglect writing in favor of life things because I am an A++ procrastinator. I’m lucky that most of my friends totally get the “I can’t, I have to write thing,” but it can still be hard to say no to happy hour or a movie. And sometimes it can be just as hard to step away from the writing and enjoy your time with your friends without feeling guilty.
Katy: One other thing I’ve found helpful is to try to double up my social time with something else. So for instance, I go to the gym with my sister twice a week in the morning. That gives us a chance to catch up and check in, and also takes care of a physical need. Or if there’s a show I’m going to definitely watch anyway, I’ll invite a friend over to watch it with me, that kind of thing.
Another thing that helps me is to plan my social time in advance. Like I said I try to block out my writing time for the week in advance, so I try to know which nights are blocked off for social at that time too. It really helps mitigate the guilt of not writing when I know in advance I’ll be taking Wednesday night off to eat wings and drink beer. Especially if I know I’ll have Thursday night to get back to it. It also helps me say “no” to social things when I’ve already committed to a writing session that night.
Christine: I’ve learned to use social things as an incentive for getting writing done. Like, for example, last Saturday, I finished my writing goals for the day before 3pm so I could have a video chat session with my siblings and go to a friend’s birthday party that night. It felt really good! I was like, look at me, a competent person, balancing my work life and my social life.
Ashley: I’ve been trying to be better about this by treating time with friends like breaks or fallow periods, depending on what I’m doing. It’s important to do those things not just so you keep your friends and your sanity, but also because writing is supposed to be reflection of life. Your relationships and experiences all end up in your writing, whether you realize it or not. You need those days of adventure and that time with friends and family to fill you up so you have something to pour out later.
Katy: The absolute worst thing that happens is I’ll try to block of time to write and get nothing done. I get tired and cranky and frustrated with myself, and decide I must continue sitting there being tired and cranky and frustrated and getting nothing done.
Be kinder to yourself. Take an evening walk. Go grocery shopping or clean the kitchen. Take more time off than you think you need, even. Let yourself miss writing.
Ashley: I think having a full time job gives my life some necessary structure. As much as I love a checklist, I’m not great at making the most of an empty day. I need that contrast of work time and free time to motivate me to DO stuff with my free time that is actually productive.
Christine: Having a full time job while writing may occasionally turn me into a deadline hermit, but it’s also been good for me. Aside from the obvious point that regular paychecks are awesome, I also think it’s dangerous to throw all of your self worth and energy into one thing. My day job has allowed me to develop a different skill set, and while sometimes being all-publishing all the time is difficult, I have really enjoyed looking at this industry from two sides! The perspective of working on the writing and agenting sides is invaluable.
Katy: For a while when I was balancing writing and work, there were times when I resented my job because it took time away from what I wanted to be doing most–writing. But I’ve realized that I do really like having something ELSE that I’m good at and can contribute to.
Ashley: It’s important to have things outside of writing, whether that’s a job, full-time or part-time, or hobbies. The publishing industry is sort of inherently flawed because it’s a business based on a purely subjective product. There are so many ups and downs and sudden turns, and nothing is certain. If your whole life and identity is in writing, then you’re going to end up seriously motion sick. But if you have other horizons in your life to focus on, then you won’t feel quite so inside out when you’re thrown for a loop. Be the best writer you can be, but also be other things.
Katy: After almost 3 years of this hustle, I’ve found out that my problem is not about making time to write but knowing how to prioritize it without neglecting other things that ultimately you need to nourish you. I can reframe my down time not as subtracting from my writing time, but as part of the necessary equation that leads to a productive evening or weekend.
Ashley: Just like there’s no right way to write a book, I think there’s no right way to write with a full-time job: you have to figure out what works for you, and that means it might take you a little while. Patience is key. I’m still learning, and this discussion alone has taught me so much. There’s going to be some trial and error, and even after you figure it out you’ll never have the perfect system.
Writing is hard, whether you have a full-time job or it is your job or not, and literally nothing will change that, so make sure that whatever you do, you hold on to the joy that made you want to be a writer in the first place. That’s what will get you through all the difficult, exhausting days.
Christine: I also want to second what Ashley said, that there’s no right way to write with a full-time job. What you have to do is trust that you love writing enough to figure it out. Because if you care enough, you’ll find a way.