To continue this week’s discussion of building THE LIFE we want, making time for THE WORK we want to do, and avoiding burnout, I wanted to take you through the steps of how I made the time to write this daily post.
(And all of the daily posts. Monday through Friday.)
You might think “well, you’re a freelancer, you can just write whenever you want.” In my case, this isn’t true. As the owner/editor of The Billfold, I need to make sure that new posts run at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. (Eastern) every weekday. I don’t have to write all of these posts (many of them are written by freelancers, and we just ran a new call for pitches so PITCH US), but I have to make sure they are edited and that the writers have signed off on the edits and that everything runs on time and gets crossposted to social media.
Although I could theoretically do that work “whenever I wanted,” I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to create and stick to a schedule. I won’t go into the details, but I block off certain hours every day for editing, for writing my own posts, for reaching out to sponsors, and for doing Billfold administrative work (like paying our writers).
I also block off certain hours to complete my non-Billfold freelance writing, such as the pieces I write for Bankrate, and do the related administrative work.
When you add in a little bit of overflow time, because there’s always going to be something that takes longer than you expect, this work fills a standard 8-hour workday.
So. How do you fit in another 1,200-word blog post, Monday through Friday?
In my case, I used the old trick of “getting up earlier.”
But — and here’s the key — I combined it with “going to bed earlier.”
I swear half of burnout is “not getting enough sleep AND non-sleep rest,” I do not have the science to back this up but I bet someone else does
So this past fall, I was doing this after-hours creative project that ended up taking all the hours. I would work until 5 and then need to be on the bus by 5:15, and then I wouldn’t get back to my apartment until about 11 p.m.
By the end of the five-week commitment — and it is hard to believe it was only five weeks — I was burned out. I think I’ve mentioned that I keep this Daily Spreadsheet where I track my moods and foods and sleep and stuff, and the spreadsheet went from “Health: Well; Mood: Excited; Energy: High” to “Health: Tired; Mood: None; Energy: Tired.”
(Yes, I count “tired” as a health descriptor. I wasn’t sick, after all — but I wasn’t well.)
The interesting thing was that I was still getting around seven hours of sleep a night. In fact, most days I was getting closer to seven-and-a-half.
But I wasn’t getting any non-sleep rest.
So I was still tired, all the time — and eventually my spreadsheet shifted to “Health: Exhausted; Mood: Broken; Energy: Exhausted.”
I am going to recommend reading Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams if you currently feel like you are getting less sleep than you need. This book changed my life, and I should really just buy a copy at this point because I have checked it out of the library multiple times.
But we need more than just sleep. We also need time to rest, or just be, or relax, or breathe, or however you want to put it.
So I kept that in mind when I decided not to take on creative commitments like that in the future — and I also kept it in mind when I decided to take on this new project.
Giving time to the work you want to do means giving less time to something else (and sometimes that’s a good thing)
In order to write this daily blog post, I started going to bed a half-hour earlier and waking up a half-hour earlier.
But it takes more than a half-hour to write this.
So where did that extra time come from?
Well… my typical morning routine used to go something like this:
I’d wake up, use the toilet, and then cozy up on my couch with my coffee and breakfast and Daily Spreadsheet and Fitbit and YNAB. I’d do the administrative stuff first (filling out my spreadsheet, checking my budget) and then I’d start reading my Feedly and checking Twitter and seeing what everyone was talking about online.
I’d tell myself that this whole process should only take a half hour, and that I should go right into yoga-shower-get-ready-for-work, but I’d just had this coffee and this breakfast and I kinda wanted a second cup and the couch was so cozy and there was so much on the internet to read and I’d just click one more link and so on.
Some days I would make myself late to my own freelance job, which means I’d use up my overflow time before the workday even started.
So I switched it up. I made the routine “toilet, yoga, shower, dress, then coffee and breakfast,” and I also did the coffee and breakfast at my desk instead of on the sofa.
Suddenly I had this whole hour back, and when you combined it with the “waking up earlier” thing it was like I was even further ahead, and since I was at my desk and dressed and stretched I was less inclined to “slowly ease into the day” by reading one billion internet because, at this point, the day had already started.
Which meant that it was time to do the Daily Spreadsheet, check the budget, do a quick pass of the news and the email, and start writing this post.
I also changed up my evening routine. I now have a “tonin alarm” on my Fitbit watch, and when it goes off I take my melatonin pill, brush my teeth, get into my pajamas if I’m not already wearing them, turn off all the lights except for a sleep-friendly booklight, and read quietly until I’m ready to fall asleep. Thanks to the melatonin, I can generally only read for about fifteen minutes before it’s one-more-toilet-and-sleep-time. (I try to stick to old favorite books that I’ve read a hundred times before.)
This also shortened the bedtime routine by, like, half, because it used to be “click one more internet, think about getting up to take the melatonin, couch is too cozy, blanket is too warm, internet is too internet…” and even though I knew I did better with eight hours of sleep instead of seven-and-a-half, I’d still end up dinking around and using up that extra half hour of sleep scrolling through Page 4 of Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five.” (Did you know that nobody really knows why our fingernails grow faster than our toenails?)
And getting better sleep turned out to get me better non-sleep rest, because I wasn’t so tired that I was trying to mine dopamine from blinking screens. I could spend more time doing generative resty things like reading new books or going for walks or watching movies with friends.
I want to keep going and discuss how making choices like this, that get you closer to THE LIFE you want, both limit and improve subsequent choices — but this is already long enough and it’s time for me to start working on Billfold stuff, so that’ll be for tomorrow. ❤️
(And if you’re thinking “but what about the times when you can’t go to bed when you want to, or do the other stuff that you want to do, because of XYZ?” that’ll be for Thursday.)