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November 28, 2018

How to balance writing with that pesky day job

Creative Rebel, Writing Runes

For the last ten months I’ve been living the dream of writers across the world – whole uninterrupted weeks where I don’t have to think about anything except characters and plots and which cat will snuggle on my feet.

Not quite – I’ve still got to run my writing business, do chores, cook food, snuggle cats. But I’m not going to lie – being a full-time writer is awesome.

It’s taken me many years to get here. I actually quit my job once before, back in 2013, to run my freelance content writing business and hopefully become a bestselling novelist on the side. The whole point of me quitting was to gain more time to work on my own fiction.

It was a mistake. I wasn’t earning enough per hour to thrive, and we started building our house at the same time. No matter how much I worked, I couldn’t seem to get to a point where I felt ‘safe’. I could never do enough, never achieve enough, and every day, clients breathed down my neck – wanting more, more, more.

I was expending all my creative energy working on other people’s passion projects, and I had nothing left for myself. In 6 months I’d barely written 5,000 words of fiction. I was miserable. I never stopped working. A client offered me a full-time position – part of a growing marketing team for a small product within a much larger tech giant. It was an amazing salary and I could work 3 days a week from home. I said yes and immediately felt 100% better.

With that job, I was off the clock after my 8 hours, and I had all this time to devote to writing. I quit all my freelance work and just focused on the house and my novels. It was around this time I started to experiment with self-publishing. I decided that if I left the day job again, it wouldn’t be to work for other people. It would be because of my own stories.

I changed jobs twice in the ensuing years, both to different tech firms, all with some kind of work-from-home arrangement. The days I did work, my commute was between 3-5 hours each day. I was tired, but determined, especially once I started seeing success with Steffanie Holmes.

2017 was a tough year for me. We crunched the numbers and worked out that it was possible for me to quit, provided I could bring in a certain figure every month. I nearly did quit there and then, but because we hadn’t finished the house yet, I knew we needed to be sensible and save as much as we could and finish first, instead of run the risk that we had to use the money and we couldn’t get things done.

At the last second, as I wound up one job, I was offered an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The only catch was a 5-hour commute, 3 days a week. My husband would drive for an hour from our home, drop me at the bus stop on the way to his office, and I’d take two buses to get to my new office, reversing the commute on the way home.

I told myself when I took the job I would only do it for a year and not a day longer. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable relying solely on Amazon’s whims for future employment, so I found some work as a contractor content writing for local marketing agencies. Four agencies sent me monthly work. It was perfect, because they handled all the client stuff that I hated, and I just wrote articles and blogs and emails.

Well, perfect-ish. The day job was taxing on the brain. The commute made me tired. I wrote my 2000 words a day hunched over a computer on the bus. My back hurt. When I got in the door at night I’d go straight to the computer and finish agency work, then write or edit my novels. Every night. I worked all weekend, every weekend. We got the house finished. I published seven books. I sent in (nearly) all my freelance work on time.

I barely did any book marketing – except applying for Bookbubs – because I just didn’t have the brain space. My husband got grumpy at me because I was always working. But we both gritted our teeth and forged onward because we knew we had an end-date. I wrote my resignation date in my calendar and counted down the days until I could quit.

My last day at work was one day before the exact date I began the previous year. My workmates made me an amazing card and we had donuts. I will never forget how supportive they (and all the other folk I’ve worked with over the years) have been, but I’d be lying if I said I was sad to leave.

Now… life is awesome. That gnawing stress of 2017 is gone. The house is (mostly) done, the books are doing well, the freelance work is starting to taper off as I focus more on building the book income. I get to be home all the time – where I truly want to be – with my cats and my man. I have headspace for cool projects and blogging. I walk outside every morning and pick handfuls of strawberries for breakfast. Life is good.

It took a lot of work to get here, and also luck and privilege. We don’t have kids who rely on us, my husband earns decent money, apart from the mortgage we don’t have debt. I’m fit and youngish and I get to do this awesome thing and I am so so so grateful.

If this is you, here are some tips from me:

1. Find an employee that allows you to work from home at least 1-2 days a week if possible, or at least that has flexible hours so you can, for instance, get into the office a 7AM and leave at 3PM. Both these things have given me a lot more writing time over the years.
2. Carve out space where you can and force yourself to do the things even when it sucks. I had a 5-hour commute 3 days a week for a year. I managed to write around 1500-2000 words a day on the bus even though it was a bit shite.
3. Eat lunch at your desk and go home early to write. Or write during your lunch hour if the culture of your office allows it. I was never at work to become BFFs with my workmates, so I’d always avoid taking time off for lunch if I could avoid it.
4. Give yourself an end-date, as a goal to work towards. It helps you to stay sane if you ramp up your efforts the year preceding your exit.
5. If possible, do something for a day job that will help you with your writing career, maybe by working in publishing or teaching so you gain contacts, or in marketing so you learn about how to promote your books.
6. Use hacks like the pomodoro technique to make sure you’re making the most out of the time you do have to write.
7. Talk to your partner, if you have one, often and openly, about what you’re trying to achieve. They can be supportive but also miss you, and it’s good to share your wins and make sure they’re aware that this crazy pace is not forever.
8. Think about how to protect your income when you DO go full-time, so you aren’t forced to go back the way I was the first time. Make sure you calculate exactly what you need to survive, and account for taxes, insurance, advertising, book covers, editing, etc. Look at freelance work and other ideas to help you even out your income.
9. Develop a draconian attitude toward your day-job hours. If they pay you for 40 hours, they get 40 hours. No more, no less. You’ll put in the effort while you’re there, but any unpaid overtime you do robs you of your limited free time. Remember, you’re not sticking around forever so it doesn’t matter that you don’t win, “most dedicated employee of the year” award.
10. Work on things that offer the fastest route to getting what you need. You only have finite time, so choose to only do the jobs that offer the highest ROI. Publishing a new book is much better than updating your website or making another social media page.
11. Do all your thinking at other times of the day so you don’t waste your precious writing time staring at a blank page. I do my thinking either in the shower or dozing in the car or on the bus.
12. Stick your goal in the calendar. Glue post-its all over your house. Put an alert on your phone… anything to remember why you’re doing this!

There you have it, 12 perfectly simple tips to help you write through the day job. I hope soon I’ll be seeing your announcement that you’ve quit for good!


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