One of the most difficult things about being a writer actually has little to do with writing itself.
Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I know. I said it’s difficult. I didn’t say it was logical.
What is most difficult about the writing life isn’t what you write, but how you get it done between just about everything else in your world that needs doing.
Because let’s be both honest and realistic here: Writers don’t just sit at their desks and write all day, stop writing, and watch movies for the rest of the day. Most writers are “normal” people with busy lives outside of the writing they very often complete on their own limited time. Most writers even have full-time day jobs that have nothing to do with writing, forcing them to find time for writing in the most disjointed, inconvenient moments possible.
There is this idea that in order to be successful, your life has to be completely in balance every second of every day. You have to sleep eight hours a night, and have healthy relationships with friends and family and significant others. You have to be totally healthy, always. You have to have it all together before you can “make it.”
Thankfully — THANKFULLY — this could not be further from the truth.
You are never going to be able to fully focus on just one thing. While there are many problems with multi-tasking, and I do not recommend making it a regular practice, you are very rarely ever going to have a to-do list with just one task on it that needs doing. For me, it seems that the older I get, the more diverse these task lists become. I have to write a chapter of my book. But also wrap presents. And call so-and-so. And make an appointment for such-and-such. Also … sleep?
How do you decide what to focus on most? Probably the things that are going to take the most time. You have to learn to structure your days (as much as possible — unpredictable things happen) so that little tasks fall between big tasks, so there is never too much “down time” when there shouldn’t be. You should always separate your work from your play, but you must always schedule out time for both.
Routines are the most valuable for people who can’t help but have a dozen things to do every day. Parents are just one example of those who might fall under this particular category. You don’t just have yourself to take care of, you have tiny humans, and partners, and sometimes fur babies and other people’s kids to watch out for. How the heck do you do it all when you never get five minutes to yourself?
There are a lot of recommendations experts typically give here. Some suggest having separate to-do lists for different areas of your life so that you don’t look down at your planner and see a page full of boxes that need checking off. Others say you should narrow your list down to three big tasks/projects (working on your book, making dinner) and five small ones (picking up the mail, washing your car).
One key thing to remember is that when you are in the process of completing a task, you must focus on that specific task and that task only. Don’t try to work on your book and make your grocery list at the same time. Some tasks can be paired together seamlessly (making dinner and also making a grocery list, for example), but many can’t. Focus. Focus on one thing until it’s done, then move on to the next thing, and so on.
Balance isn’t about doing everything efficiently every moment of every day. There is this widespread misconception that it is possible to eat well, exercise, make progress on your book, spend quality time with your family, learn a new skill, excel at every part of your job, and sleep eight hours a night all at the same time. There are people who claim to have mastered this seemingly advanced form of survival. I’m not buying it.
When you are committing to life as a writer, that has to come with a variety of realistic expectations. While we might all try to achieve the kind of balance that the so-called fit mom bloggers do (nothing against them — as long as they’re happy and not hurting anyone, they’re free to do as they please), most of us never will. Even if we manage to check off most of the boxes in any given day, there is always going to be at least one thing that slips through your fingers.
On one Saturday, you might meal prep for the week ahead, enjoy a nice homemade lunch, go jogging, clean the house, spend time with your kids (fur children also count), go on a dinner date with your significant other, get all your grocery shopping done, and get that novel chapter done — maybe even two chapters. But oops! All of a sudden it’s two in the morning and you have to wake up in four hours. So close.
Something is always going to have to give, whether you want it to or not … whether you even realize it is happening or not. It’s just not possible to do it all, all the time. You can be healthy. You can be happy. You can be productive, and you can be present in the lives of the people you care about. But if you are anything like me, every area of importance has at least three of its own check boxes. Some of those are going to be left blank. And that’s OK.
Your health and your happiness should always come first. Work is important. Relationships are important. And for you (at least I am assuming so, since you are reading this right now), writing is extremely important. Borderline essential, even. There are many “importants” in your life. And this likely is never going to change. You will always care about many things at once.
But if you aren’t taking the time to care for yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
This past year, I spent a lot of time writing and working and growing and hustling. A LOT of time. Ten or more hours a day every day, pretty much. I felt productive and accomplished, I felt proud, I felt capable. I had faith in my dreams and in my goals.
But despite all that, I was neither healthy nor happy. I could never seem to force myself to make enough time for the people I cared about, and I certainly wasn’t about to sacrifice valuable writing time for what many people are calling “self care.” (I just call it food, exercise, sleep, and Disney+). By the end of the year, I wasn’t just burned out. I was miserable. I felt like I had let down so many people around me … and myself. And all for what? A bunch of words and articles and blog posts and novels that may never leave my computer and ideas that may never turn into things?
When you are not at your best, you can’t write your best. And when you can’t write your best, it negatively impacts just about every other area of your life whether you realize it or not. You know what it feels like when you know you could have written something better … or could have written anything at all, but chose not to. It doesn’t feel great. It darkens your mood. It kills your motivation. It starts to make you wonder if your work, if your hopes and dreams, are even worth the effort anymore.
You have to take care of yourself above all else. When you are happy and managing your stress and motivated and ready to go, you can write to the best of your ability even on your worst days. And you can make the time for relaxing, and spending time with the people you love, and eating food that makes you feel good.
It’s worth the effort. It’s worth creating schedules and setting priorities and making plans for. When your days are in order, when you have some kind of structure, everything looks and feels better. You may not have it all together all the time. But honestly, who does? Not you. Definitely not me. None of us. Ever.
You can have it all. You just have to consistently adjust what “all” means. It’s within what you are capable of in any given moment. Sometimes, things are going to fall to the bottom of your priority list. You are going to forget, you are going to say, “Nope, I don’t think so. Not right now.” This is normal. This is what it means to be human.
Be kind to yourself. And to others. Do the best you can. And when you can’t, well — that’s OK too. You will pick yourself back up again. You will find your way back to where you want to be. In general, we always do.
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.