Writers: Your Day Job Doesn’t Have to Rule Your Life

This is a tough lesson to learn, but a worthwhile one.

You might think it does. But it doesn’t.

Growing up, the vast majority of us were probably told that getting an education, finding a stable, well-paying job, and starting a family were the most important things we could do for ourselves.

It’s not that these things don’t or can’t have value. The problem is that some people — such as creative people who would rather tell stories on paper than climb the corporate ladder or whatever — don’t always end up with a stable job they stick with for years on end.

When a full-time job becomes a “day job” — something you do while the sun is up so you can afford to eat and stay warm in the winter and buy more books, you know, all the priorities — there comes a point when you have to decide how much of your energy you can dedicate to that job and how much you have to reserve for your side projects.

You might genuinely care about your day job and want to do good work. There is no rule that says you can’t excel as an employee and work toward building a successful writing career when you clock out and go home.

But sometimes, our employers demand a lot from us. And while your day job may be extremely important — especially when it comes to the financial aspect of the 40+ hour work week.

When the pressures of having a day job while also being a working aspiring writer start to get you down, you know what you gotta do? Here are a few things that have worked for me. Hopefully they will help you, too.

Accept that sometimes, IN MOST CASES (there will be exceptions), a job is just a job. This realization took me years to come to. Not only did I spend probably way too much time looking for my “dream job” — one that would allow me to do something I loved while also offering insurance benefits, paid time off, and a 401K — but I also got very discouraged when my dream job stopped being my dream job.

For the record, I love the people I work for and am grateful that I get to contribute in a small way to their success. But in the past year, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I simply cannot go above and beyond at my workplace and also have a blog, write books, and do all the other things that bring me joy outside of the work that brings me a paycheck.

You can do the things you love — like writing — outside of the job that pays your bills. It isn’t easy. Some days, it can start to feel impossible. But at the end of it all, a day job is just a day job. Your day job pays the bills. You don’t owe anyone overtime and you don’t have to be best friends with your boss (though, uh, please be a decent human being). Do good work. But if you don’t have time or energy to go above and beyond, don’t. Let someone who does have the time and energy to impress the CEO go ahead and do that.

As an overachiever and people-pleaser, I struggled hard to accept that if I wanted to pursue my true creative passions, I was going to have to give my eight-hour workday the absolute minimum amount of attention. I don’t slack off. I offer to help out when I can. But outside of my required weekly tasks to keep the company I work for running, writing is my priority, and that isn’t going to change just because I want to make a good impression. I’ve already done that. They know I’m worth having around. That’s all that matters on both sides.

Don’t ever let anyone convince you that your “side” writing is a waste of time. I have a certain family member who believes everyone should have a nine to five job and never do work outside of that time frame. When I mention I am “working” over a weekend or at night — almost always on my own writing or creative projects — this person’s immediate response is usually something like: “Is that work paying your bills?” Basically implying that if it doesn’t — which it doesn’t, to be clear — that’s what my day job is for — I shouldn’t be doing it.

I’m in my late (!) 20s and the opinions of my family, especially when it comes to my writing career, don’t matter big picture wise. What they say is not going to change the weight of importance my work has in my life. Just because someone disapproves of how I spend my evenings and weekends does not mean I’m going to change what I do to please them.

But it’s still hard — something you know if you have even one family member or friend that does not support you. We want the people around us to approve of the ways we are spending our time. And we need encouragement every now and then, especially when we are in the trenches writing for pennies and praying someone will offer us more as the result of our hard work.

You can’t wait around for people to accept that your day job is not the most important — or the only — work you are doing. Some people never will. And this should not influence the way you choose to live your life. If you have to keep your day job, or that’s what you want to do, you are allowed to keep it but also do your own work “after hours.” You are allowed to figure out how to balance both areas of your professional life.

If it helps you afford to live and/or live the way you want, and allows you the freedom to do writing “on the side,” there’s no harm in it.

For the love of all that is holy, please take care of yourself. I’ve told my story in various places on the internet before and don’t feel the need to go deep into it right now. But long story short, I am no stranger to burnout — and I’m not just talking “worn out on a Friday night after a long week of work” burnout. I’m talking struggling to get out of bed, dragging myself kicking and screaming through every big and small task, wanting to quit everything, yet continuing to go a thousand miles an hour because QUITTERS NEVER WIN.

It took me a very long time to recover from that. And I’m grateful that I was able to continue writing and didn’t do so much of it that I wanted to shove it aside and never try again.

Humans are not built to work all the time or function on minimal sleep or push themselves to the point of wanting to give up simply because they want to stay in their employer’s good graces. Whether you want to call this ridiculous moment of culture we are in right now, it’s setting thousands of writers up for failure because it implies everyone should be able to have a day job, have a family, write several books a year, work out, have friends, always be “on” … you get the picture.

In reality, no one is like that. No one can handle giving 100 percent to everything, at least not for very long. They might tell you they can, but they can’t.

If you can handle doing whatever work it is you are qualified to do during the day and then coming home to write at least a few times a week, then do it. It might even be good for you.

But if trying to balance your day job with your personal writing projects isn’t working, it’s OK — it might even be necessary — to find balance in imbalance. Maybe some days you don’t work as hard at work — on slower days, for example — to conserve energy for the night’s upcoming writing session. Or there might be some days … or weeks … you have to put your writing on hold to deal with things at work.

My advice: If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a step back and evaluate what is causing your stress and at least one small step you can take right now in an attempt to fix it. Maybe you need to reserve your writing time for the weekends instead of trying to do it during the week. Or perhaps an honest conversation with your manager about demands on your workload and time is your ideal first step.

Don’t hurt yourself for the sake of being able to “do it all.” Trust me. It isn’t worth it. Not even a little bit.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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