How to Keep Your Day Job from Destroying Your Writing Dreams

Filed in Productivity and Time Management by on September 4, 2017 • views: 1292

Most writers these days are advised to keep their day jobs.

The odds of earning a full-time living from writing alone are just too great to risk going without, and no one wants to worry about how they’re going to pay their bills while they’re trying to put together their next novel.

But staying employed while trying to manage a writing career is a challenge, to say the least. I’ve been hearing more and more from Writing and Wellness readers that “the job” is one of the biggest roadblocks when it comes to finding more time to write.

So what can we do to create a better balance in our lives between the work we have to do to keep a roof over our heads and the creative work that calls to our hearts?

Long Working Hours Hurting Us All

It’s no surprise that writers are feeling the squeeze. In today’s technologically connected world, people in a number of countries, including America, are struggling to maintain some sense of work-life balance, say nothing of finding a way to fit in something more, like writing or another creative endeavor.

According to a 2015 report, one in three employees said maintaining a healthy work-life balance had become more difficult over the past five years. Cell phones, emails, and video conferencing makes it much too easy to work after hours, to the point that there doesn’t seem to be any real “quitting time” anymore.

This is creating significant problems in our lives. “Number of hours spent working” comes up again and again as the strongest and most consistent predictor of work-life conflict, along with blurred boundaries between home and work. Families suffer as a result, and our health suffers, too.

A study published earlier this year (2017) reported that a healthy work limit was 39 hours a week. After that, health started to decline.

“Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health,” said lead author Dr. Huong Dinh, “because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly.”

The authors also recommended a lower weekly limit for women (34 hours), because in general, they shoulder a larger burden of unpaid work at home. “Given the extra demands placed on women,” Dr. Dinh added, “it’s impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health.”

An earlier study suggested that women who worked long hours (35 hours a week or more) were more at risk for depression, and that men were more at risk for weight gain. Long hours were also associated with an increase in smoking for both genders, and an increase in drinking for women.

Even more frightening was a 2016 study out of Ohio State University that found women who averaged 60 work hours a week or more for over three decades had triple the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble, and arthritis. Risks started to climb after 40 hours, and got serious after 50.

“Women—especially women who have to juggle multiple roles—feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability,” said Dr. Allard Dembe, professor of health services management and policy.

Workaholism Kills Writing Dreams

Yes, many of us are working long hours, but meanwhile most of us crave a better balance—particularly if we’re longing to get more writing done.

In a 2013 report, two-thirds of professionals surveyed said that having both a successful career and a full life outside work was so important that they often made their job decisions based on potential impact on work-life balance.

At the same time, over 70 percent noted that technology brought work into their personal lives. Three-quarters reported they worked frequently or occasionally during their paid time off, “generally checking email, catching up on work, working with no distractions, and participating in conference calls….At the same time, 40 percent consider themselves workaholics.”

Whether you count yourself among the workaholic crowd or not, you know that long work hours are associated with family conflicts, health problems, and an inability to make progress on your writing dreams. The big question, then, is how can you change it?

Take a Clear Look at Your Place of Employment

Each of us has a unique situation when it comes to balancing work, family, and writing. You may be working full time, and have little choice about how many hours you put in. Then again, you may be a salaried worker who feels pressured to put in extra hours, but who may be able to cut back a bit if you do it carefully.

I used to work a corporate job before I became a freelance writer, so I know how tough it can be to walk out the door when your colleagues are still at their desks. Studies show, however, that working longer hours actually hurts productivity, and that you’re likely to get more done if you get out on time.

After about two years of working evenings and weekends, I realized my writing dreams were being ignored, so I made a decision to leave work on time for most days of the week. I was surprised to learn that my projects didn’t suffer. I was just as productive (if not more so), and by taking a step back, I also noticed that much of the management worked in fake “rush” mode.

They would often describe projects as emergencies that they then held up later in their own offices. By refusing to catch the “emergency” stress, I saved myself those wasted hours I would have spent at work and spent them writing and taking care of myself instead.

I recommend taking a good hard look at your job and how many hours you’re putting in versus the rewards you’re receiving in return. It helps to remember that writing takes a daily commitment, and that the time you’re giving to your boss is time your spending on his dreams instead of your own.

We can often create a better balance at work by asserting ourselves.

I was working full time for a technology company when I decided I was ready to make the break to working for myself. I approached my employer with a proposal: I would continue to work for them as a contract writer, but on a part-time basis, so I could work at home and build my freelance business.

The company could have said “no,” and they almost did, but when they realized how determined I was, they agreed to work with me. They became one of my best clients after that, and that agreement gave me the boost I needed to go entirely freelance.

Risks can really pay off, if you’re careful. I’m not advising anyone to quit their jobs or put their work in jeopardy, but we often get trapped in tunnel vision and don’t realize we actually could make some changes if we wanted to. If you’re a hard worker and your company values you, you may be able to propose a solution that would work for both you and your boss.

How to Create a Better Work-Life-Writing Balance

Besides making changes at work, there are some other things you can do to help you achieve a better work-life-writing balance.

1. Work on a yearly schedule.

Writers often ask me about balancing writing and marketing tasks. Not an easy thing, for sure. One thing that works for me is to take an annual view. I tend to naturally write more in the winter, and market more in the summer. The two activities go naturally with the seasons. Winter is a quieter time, and it’s easy to hunker down and produce lots of words. Summer is more active, and it’s fun to get out and meet new people through my various marketing events.

Musicians do this regularly. They hunker down in their studies creating albums, then they head out on the road to market them. Writers can do the same thing. I set deadlines accordingly, on a yearly basis. As long as I finish the book I’m working on by the end of the year, it’s okay if I’m not working on it when I’m marketing through the summer. As long as I reach all my deadlines for marketing in the summer, I don’t worry if my books get less attention in the winter.

We often think that if we’re not writing every day of the year we’re slacking off, but writers have so many responsibilities now, we have to find new ways to manage them. An annual calendar has really worked for me.

2. Set firm boundaries.

Somewhere, somehow, we have to start setting boundaries on technology. If you’re answering work emails during dinner with your family, or taking your smartphone to bed, or picking up the pieces of projects while you’re on vacation, you’re putting your health and your family connections at risk. It’s just not worth it.

In addition, you’re destroying any chance you have at being creative should you carve out 30 minutes to write. A stressed brain is not a creative one, and keeping work on your mind 24/7 is a surefire recipe for stress. There has to be somewhere that you draw the line.

I’d recommend:

  • setting an hour each evening after which you will not respond to work requests,
  • refusing to answer work emails on the weekend, and
  • setting up “out of the office” messages when you’re on vacation so you can truly unplug.

The first time I did the last one, it scared me. I was afraid I would anger my clients by being incognito for a couple weeks, but I learned that this fear was silly. We all need time off, and even if your boss doesn’t like it, he or she will likely understand it, or at the very least, respect your need to get away for a while.

3. Put writing early in the day.

Increasing work demands create significant fatigue. The more tired you are at the end of the day, the harder it will be to stick with your writing commitments.

If you don’t already, try to put your writing at the beginning of the day, before your energy is depleted. If you get out of bed and go straight to writing, you may be surprised at how creative you can be, as you’re still sort of in that “dream” mode. If you knock out a few hundred words before the day starts, you’ll also enjoy a feeling of accomplishment that will last for hours.

Maybe you can’t do this every day, but what about every other day, or three days a week?

4. Let go of fear and trust yourself.

Many of us are afraid to make changes at work or in other areas of our lives because we fear the consequences. If you leave work on time, will you be passed over for promotion? If you write in the morning, will the kids be late for school? If you ignore weekend emails, will you be putting your job at risk?

Only you can answer these questions, but I have found again and again that fortune favors the brave. If you are confident, believe in yourself, and create a win-win scenario for everyone, you are likely to succeed in making changes that serve your creative goals.

The kids may be late a few times, but if you put into place new rules that encourage them to take on more responsibility, they’re likely to step up. You may be passed over for promotion, but how important is that promotion to you anyway? Is it more important than your writing goals?

And if you ignore weekend emails, maybe you make an extra effort Monday morning to communicate, so you’re sure all your bases are covered. You know your situation best, but I’d encourage you to worry less, and take more action to support your writing goals.

5. Limit your work hours.

No matter your work situation, it’s important to try to keep your hours reasonable. If you’re working too many, you’re not only putting your health at risk, but you’re also making it much more difficult to find time to write. The time you do find is likely to be unproductive, too, because of fatigue.

It helps to start telling your colleagues that you’re leaving at such-and-such a time. Telling others makes it more likely that you’ll stick with it, and will also make it less likely that you’ll have trouble getting out the door. “I’ve got to leave at 4:00 today, so if you need something let me know before then.” This simple message can be enough to start planting the seeds of leaving work on time on a regular basis.

If you take two weeks to really focus on where you could cut back on your work hours, you’ll likely come up with some solutions. Even if you regain only two hours a week, it’s an improvement.

6. Let go of perfectionist tendencies.

Many workaholics are overachievers. We want every project we work on to shine, so we put in the extra time.

This serves us well in many ways. Bosses love us. The work gets done and done well. We step up in our careers. But if you’re wanting to devote more time to writing or other creative work, you have to reconsider: are you putting your energies in the right place?

Maybe every project doesn’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can see work more as a paycheck and less as a reflection of your identity.

Look at what you’re doing and figure out where you can let some things go. Realize that your high-achieving tendencies may be getting in the way of your true long-term goals. No doubt there are things at work that could be completed more quickly (and less perfectly). Try to identify those and work on spending less time on them.

7. Use the time you have.

Think about those times when you actually have a few minutes to yourself. What do you do with them?

If you’re like most people, you spend that time “catching up.” You run errands, answer emails, clean the house, and in general try to get things in order.

We all need this sort of time. The danger is that it becomes your go-to default for whenever you have a free 30 minutes. A better approach might be to dedicate Saturday mornings to these sorts of catch-up activities, and use the other 30-minute gifts of time to write.

What do you do after the kids have gone to bed? The dishes? Laundry? Social media feeds? Try writing for just twenty minutes instead. The dishes will wait.

We often discount the progress we can make with smaller chunks of time, but you may be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Don’t Forget to Make a Life

It’s not easy, this work-life-writing balance. It may be the toughest thing we face as writers in today’s world.

We may not be able to “have it all,” as they say, but we can create a schedule that will allow us to make steady, if slow, progress toward our writing goals. We have to focus on it, observe our lives, and think carefully about the steps we could take, then we have to be brave enough to take them.

As the great country legend Dolly Parton said,

“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

How do you balance work with writing?

Andrew Soergel, “Study: 1 in 3 Says Work-Life Balance Getting Tougher,” US News, May 15, 2015,

Tessa Berenson, “Working More than 39 Hours a Week Could Hurt Your Health,” Money, February 10, 2017,

Huong Dinh, et al., “Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities,” Social Science & Medicine, March 2017; 176:42-51,

Shields M, “Long working hours and health,” Health Rep., Autumn 1999; 11(2):33-48,

Sarah Knapton, “Working long hours harms women but protects men, study shows,” Telegraph, June 16, 2016,

“Accenture Research Finds Most Professionals Believe They Can ‘Have It All,’” Accenture [News Release], March 1, 2013,

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