This is a post I’ve had in the drafts for many months now. I began writing it when I was riding a work high like I’ve never experienced before. I wrote it down to document the change, and to remind myself of it when things swung the other way. Last year I made some specific changes in the way I worked and I know I owe a lot of the successes to it. That I didn’t routinely watch myself for obvious signs of being overworked and nearing burnout is another matter, but it was the first time I approached working for myself like I would working for an employer. And that did count for a lot.
Now seems like a good time as any, to revisit this post, finish it and take stock as I work through this process of realigning my aim and trajectory. Some of my perspectives have changed even in the few months that have passed, but I am a better professional for these lessons I learned.
The beginning of last year was a chaotic, tumultuous few months and all I seemed to be doing was running around in circles, forever chasing a list of deliverables that was growing faster than I could keep up with it. Eventually, the chaos made way for some semblance of a rhythm but it was not a conscious movement, at first. However, eventually I wound my way back to where I was when I first started working from home. Which is to say that I started treating my work with a little respect.
Routine. Routine. Routine: I don’t know if all writers face this but I need a basic framework of a routine. I am quite the creature of habit and place a high level of importance on having a routine that made work feel like work. I took care to “get to work” on time, every day. Even though it only involved getting to my desk in the next room, the study. But I made the change from working in my PJs to beginning the day early, getting home chores sorted and out of the day, showering, dressing for the day and getting to my desk by a fixed time.
Workspace: The “other room” in our home was always my unofficial workspace, but some time last year I took some care to turn the desk into a work desk. I set up my laptop on a stack of books, started using a wireless keyboard and mouse, kept my notepads and pens close at hand and hooked up my speakers. Consciously creating a workspace and making yourself work there, automatically puts me in a working frame of mind. I also realised that when the desk got messy, my work got messy. So it helped to get into a cleaning, sorting, decluttering routine, every so often.
Lists: Again, this is something my OCD self loves and for some reason I’d use these all the time when employed, but didn’t take them as seriously for myself. I’m now a rabid list-maker. Lists of tasks, lists of to-dos for every day, longer stories-to-pitch lists, publication wish-lists, half-formed ideas, trackers for bills etc. Handwritten works well, but when I juggle multiple lists I like to put it down online. I use either word docs or excel sheets – just basic stuff, no mumbo jumbo programming – to keep track. I now have a editorial calendar that helps me track my work status, which has been a huge savior when it comes to tracking payments.
Plenty of exercise and good quality sleep: Closely linked to routine is my need for exercise and sleep. My productivity is hugely dependent on these two factors. Running low on sleep almost always means I cannot function at 100% the next day. So I’d resort to taking naps when I could and felt the need. Exercise is really the steroids of my life, and is the defining thing that differentiates a good day from a bad one. Exercising in the morning really sets me up for the day, even on harder, more stressful days.
Work and play: That old adage (that really never gets all that old) is so true. All work, no play, dull girl. And I wish I’d remembered to sustain the balance through the year. I did manage a lot of curricular stuff but my life was sorely missing balance towards the end of the year. I tried to do it all, and that is where I drove myself a little batty.
Go offline: So intwined with being online is my area of work, that I had to remind myself that there is a different joy in going offline, putting pen to paper and taking myself outside the study. I did this a fair bit, taking myself to cafes, beaches, friend’s homes to work, notebook in tow. It does bring out a different churn in the brain and I need to do this more.
Make writer friends: This was a big one for me. Online and offline, I’ve wormed my way into a network of writers who play a variety of roles in my life. From professional advice, to help with pitching, exchanging notes about openings and calls for pitches to even just letting off some steam, it has really helped to bond with fellow writers, especially women. I’m lucky to have some right here in Goa, with whom I can hang out and exchange notes ever so often. It makes this business of writing that can sometimes be a little lonely, less intimidating.
Find your one (or two, or three, or four if you’re lucky!) good client(s): All the years of experience working with agencies and now on my own has taught me that an excellent experience working with one great client can undo the trauma of working with several terrible ones. It is also true that no two clients are alike and not all of them are as nice as you want them to be. But a bouquet of clients is like a good balanced meal. You can’t always have the sugar-rich or carb-loaded comfort food you crave. You need to sometimes eat the greens, the roughage and the fibre that your mama forces you to. I try and think of my not so awesome clients as the roughage. Essential, and best to digested very quickly. This is important because then I get the play to work with the good clients and seek more work that may be good for me, but not necessarily pay me as much.
Slotting time: Adding this one in because in retrospect I realise slotting time was what I didn’t do enough of. Working in slots was always the most productive method for me. Chunking time pre-lunch, post-lunch and sometimes early in the morning or late at night when required, seemed to be the most effective way to get large deliverables out of the way. This way I was also able to slot time for workouts, dance lessons and socialising, in between. I wasn’t very successful in maintaining this because when the storm hit I was snowed in under a huge pile of work from which I didn’t surface until the end of the year. I wish I had stuck to this habit.
Learn to say no: This lesson, I learned very late. And I learned it the hard way, after burning my hands and severing way too many relationships. This tendency to say yes to everything that came my way was great at the beginning, but I soon realised I had forgotten what it was so say no. Especially in situations where clients push – for unrealistic timelines, to change your voice, to mansplain, to fix what is not their place to fix. It’s important to be able to say no, without always turning it into a confrontation or a potential point of contention. I’m struggling with the later, but I like to think I will get better with time.
Working from home always comes with the tags of taking it easy, working whenever, wherever, super-flexible hours and while a lot of it is great it is very easy to mistake all of that for a lack of routine. Worse, many times you allow yourself to slip into a routine-less haze which is not productive for most. There is always scope for improvement, and maybe a few months from now I will look at this list and change a few things up, but for the most part, this is what works for me.