How can I be very busy and have a life at the same time?
September 7, 2019 6:25 AM   Subscribe

Busy journalist in career transition looking for advice from people who are very productive professionally but still manage to do other stuff outside work (ie. have a life). Details inside.

I am an extremely busy freelance journalist who over the last couple of years has been gradually getting a lot of very good opportunities. I am very grateful for that! But I now have a daily commitment on top of all my jobs, so what used to be a reasonably "easy" working day is now a flurry of answering emails, scheduling calls plus in-person meetings, sourcing breaking news and trying to find the headspace to write for all my clients and deliver on time.

What I have described is a pretty common working day for any journalist but the thing is that I have multiple clients and a lot of corporate work. I try to be organized with master to-do lists and daily working lists and a lot of productivity tricks, but it is just too much work. I manage to do it all in the end, but it is a heavy load.

This means I often find myself working very late hours and failing to exercise, do yoga which I love, eat well. Hell, I quit most social media years ago but find myself constantly checking email and LinkedIn to keep up with things and find ideas for work. I am looking tired, with a lot of skin breakouts and feel just exhausted. On weekends, I just want to do as little as possible due to all this tiredness, which I feel bad about, I wanted to have energy to at least go for a walk in the park.

***Some background: All of my personal stuff (relationship, etc) is fine. I have a great, supportive partner who often tells me to slow down. I've been doing therapy for about five years now. Prior to this huge increase in work I moved to a countryside location but that is 2h away from the large city where I often need to do work-related stuff. So I might need to move back to where "the action" is (so contacts, events, and so on) because I can't afford to spend so much time, energy and resources on the road. Perhaps I can move to another countryside location nearer to the city, but I feel that in the next 1-2 years I might need to focus on saving money and making the most of the opportunities I have now. Which relates to my next point. ***

I am currently doing a rather expensive distance learning program which will go towards a potential career move (potentially around holistic therapies, within the next couple of years) and I need time to study. In addition I love reading stuff that has nothing to do with my daily grind, plus running and yoga. In fact I also want to do a yoga teacher training course to add to my future repertoire. (As I write this I realize the irony of my ambition to become a therapist when I am so busy I can't have a "life" of my own atm!) But I need to find room to start, however slowly, a shift towards a slower, more gentle, kind of life - and look after myself better right now.

Having said all of that I am looking for tips from the hive mind, particularly people who are extremely busy, about how I can manage the next couple of years, which will be very packed with all the stuff I mentioned, but also have a life.

Thanks so much for reading this!
posted by longjump to Human Relations (7 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I have a couple of thoughts on this. I have been trying to balance this my whole life, and I have gotten better, but it is still a struggle, as the more I conquer and am able to work in, the more I suddenly think I have time to take on. So piece of advice number one is:

Be EXTREMELY thoughtful about what new things you take on. You're taking on a lot over the next few years, which means that feeling harried and overworked could start to feel like the default. When that happens, the moment you have a more liveable load, you might start to think you have room in your schedule. If you suddenly feel yourself thinking "phew. I finally have energy and a few free hours! Time to start [new time consuming hobby or project]!" just take a moment and make sure you really have room in your life for that, and you don't want to just... take those few hours and that energy to reboot a bit.

Let yourself get bored. Let yourself feel like you have too much time sometimes. It is as important as all of the other things you want to do.

Some other thoughts:

Don't tip the balance into just one thing that you always prioritize over all the others. That's not balance. You say you get overloaded and you wind up not exercising because you had too much work. Howabout some days you wind up not finishing all of the work you wanted to finish because you had to exercise? Or you didn't finish all of the work you wanted to do because you had plans with friends? Obviously this doesn't work if you're staying up until the end of the day and exhausting yourself just doing the bare minimum: if that's true then you simply have to find a way to cut back on all of the work, because that is not sustainable over a period of years.

Separate the bare minumum from the aspirational work. You mention running and yoga. Would you prefer to do yoga 3 times a week but you'd actually get the benefits with one or two? Of the work you're doing that keeps you up late, how much if it is what you HAVE to get done and how much of it is you going the extra mile? I'm not suggesting you don't go the extra mile at times, but simply that you know when you are in it, so you can check in and decide if you can do a little less and move on to something else. Ironically I've found that knowing the difference between the bare minimum and the perfect version of whatever you want to do actually helps you go the extra mile more often, or work more things in. For example, if you're not running at all because you think there's no point because you don't have time for the run you wish you could do, but you haven't had the conversation with yourself about how a 20 minute jog is better than nothing... you just won't run at all. Or you might not think you have the energy to do the aspirational version, but in reality you just didn't have the momentum, and telling yourself you'd do the bare minimum was all you needed to get moving.

Start the day with a mindfulness practice. I make so many better decisions when I get up in the morning and check in with what's going on in my head instead of just getting moving. Taking a few minutes afterward to jot down any major thoughts that came up, a to do list, or a theme that's come up, or whatever, it really makes a big difference. This is 10-20 minutes a day and there are times when it is hard for me to keep it in my routine, but if I fall off of the horse I know that this is the first thing to work back in, before exercise, before making a plan to eat better, etc etc.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:48 AM on September 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

What's driving you to take on so much work? Money, ambition, something else?

Can you:
1) Raise your rates, so you can take on less work without losing too much money
2) Take in less work/cut some clients and cut back on expenses if necessary
3) Hire help - a part-time assistant or intern to hep with research, scheduling, whatever else would give you a lift and let you focus on the things that are most important to you
4) Form a small business and take on other writers to handle all the work you're getting.
posted by bunderful at 8:07 AM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Time to raise your rates
posted by bradbane at 8:40 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had to maintain the kind of workload you describe for a couple of years and one thing that helped was to schedule two-three days off every couple of months, as well as weekends away once in a while. I’d wrap up Friday night, get a late train somewhere, wake up in new place and then give myself permission to do NOTHING all Saturday except watch trashy telly and lie in bed. By Sunday, I usually had enough energy for a walk and maybe a gentle wander. It doesn’t sound much but it was the best I could do and it did mean I got to explore some new places and have *some* memories of that time that weren’t work. Because I’d planned these escapes in advance, I was able to ramp up my workload a bit to accommodate two to three days off in a row. Normally, I only managed a day off a week and couldn’t do much on that day for sheer exhaustion.

I also prioritised sleep to enable me to function long term. I meditated every day, which helped me stay calmer and more present and sleep better. Ironically, I sacrificed sleep to put in time for meditation but I gained it back in sleep quality. Yoga might do the same for you... So the way I got through it is to see it as a temporary, prolonged emergency. But I agree with others that if you can raise your rates to work less for the same amount of money, go for it. Then ring fence your new time and do whatever you want with it. It sounds like you’re doing a great job and I hope it helps you achieve what you want out of it.
posted by mkdirusername at 12:11 PM on September 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Nthing raise your rates and prioritizing sleep. It’s a lot easier to think clearly and make good decisions about tricky stuff when we’ll rested.
posted by jeszac at 3:31 PM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Get Magic. It's a service that handle the back end on a growing business and also can help you be sure you are making time for yourself. I know of people who use it to schedule events and activities outside of work and to be sure these events have just the right beer and snacks.
posted by parmanparman at 7:17 AM on September 8, 2019

My advice will be a little different, because I thrive on chaos and used to have your schedule & ambition. I love music, cooking, and working out. Today, I schedule nothing and work pretty much only when my clients yell at me or when I feel like it, which are a lot, so the yelling rarely happens.

My first trick is a pretty simple one. My laptop and phone are always next to me (hi from the kitchen), and my Spotify knows me very well, and I'm always in the kitchen doing something, and I eat to exercise, so my cooking/workout hobbies mesh very well. The fun part is, I also live in a super walkable neighborhood filled with good grocery stores and a semi-transient population of people from all over the world who need friends and are happy to socialize. Music, cooking, and working out are very conducive to that. My trick is that it's all in front of me all the time. Also, my apartment is small. Easy cleaning. I bought a smart lock so I could forget my keys, I bought smart plugs so I can shut things off from anywhere, I bought a robot vacuum so all I have to sweep is the steps once a week. There was a bit of a learning curve for all of it, but what started as a backpacker-inspired minimalism hobby turned into "if I can automate it or shorten the distance to it, that takes priority over everything else". For cooking in particular, I focus on speed and convenience - I want the kind of diet I can share with time & cash-poor people. "Here, this is a practical thing I learned that might help you." I cook for science!

My second trick is I tried this
3) Hire help - a part-time assistant or intern to hep with research, scheduling, whatever else would give you a lift and let you focus on the things that are most important to you
4) Form a small business and take on other writers to handle all the work you're getting.

and it was a dismal failure. It broke me. After a few years of your schedule, and then roping in everyone I could find to help me keep up...I couldn't anymore. I threw down my toys and went to another country and stopped answering emails for a few months. I just snapped one day. Your clients, and worse, your subcontractors, are your responsibility, and when the weight is all on you, when moment-to-moment there's always something, when you don't get time to recuperate, the pressure builds, and one day... I was lucky to be able to break safely, without ruining anyone's life or project, especially my own, but it was a good reminder from the universe that I can't do everything.

That's why I say "I thrive on chaos", it's because I don't want to regiment myself like that again, and I sure as hell don't want the madness and stress that people changing the plans brings about. I'm not against regimentation of life per se, but it's an acquired taste, like Vegemite, and it doesn't go with everything. Sometimes the project takes how long it takes, sometimes I don't feel like working that day, and I had a bad habit of over-promising, and I neglected myself to keep those promises, and the work often suffered, and my relationships definitely suffered. I live in this wonderful city and I almost never went out to enjoy it. I won't do that anymore. That's why doing the things I love come first, because they give me a reservoir of physical and emotional energy to realistically promise the rest to others, to say yes (or no!) to last-minute requests, and not to feel anxious and worthless when no one needs me right now. All the regimentation and productivity hacks in the world can't substitute for realizing that and setting your own boundaries about it.

What else? If you can economize, do. I mean it. Be cheap. Make it a personality trait, wear it proudly, brag about the money you saved on XYZ, hunt down little household hacks. It gives my over-ambitious freelancer ego a little sugar high every time I learn new saving skillZ. The unbleached, coreless toilet paper from that discount brand ISN'T sand-paper scratchy! Commenting on metafilter & playing RDR2 are amusing pastimes with incredible ROI. Dry chickpeas for hummus to make raw veggies interesting, how much bank is that yo, plus I can dump in leftover peppers/olives/cilantro for bonus buck$. Salsa jars ARE mugs. In the past, I never bothered. Trifling numbers I earn in an hour of work, I thought. But it's FUN. You're a freelance journalist, you defy their 9-5 hell-world anyway, you are a badass, next-level your badassery by going full eccentric on consumerism itself. It's super therapeutic, highly recommended.
posted by saysthis at 4:59 AM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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