Working at Work

There are writers who teach and teachers who write. There are also doctors, lawyers, accountants, IT guys, and every other profession who write. If you’re trying to support your lifestyle and writing as a hobby, more power to you. But if you’re laboring in earnest to become a professional writer, you feel a sense of urgency, or at least you should.

I get a lot of students and friends who lament their place in the creative world. They say things like, “I wish I was a writer/director/other cool job.” Or “How did Aronofsky/Fincher/Wes Anderson get so lucky?” My answer is usually, “(insert successful person here) didn’t play video games, or party, or chase girls. He worked his ass off.” I’d say “she” there except that young women seem to grasp the notion of “hard work = success” a lot more readily than young men. That’s nice and inspiring and helps us get motivated, but then it occurs to us that those guys grew up with money. They didn’t have to support themselves or anyone else. Yeah, Aronofsky’s dad was a high school teacher, but did Darren go to Harvard and AFI on scholarships and loans? There was money there somewhere. Anyway, my point is that these guys were obsessive about working in media and they attacked it like crazy, but they didn’t have to sweat the bills piling up like the rest of us. The way we get there before we reach retirement age is to find time to generate content while we’re at our paying jobs.

If you want examples of rags-to-riches stories, I have them, and every one of them did their writing while on the job. Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and Lawrence Block come to mind. So the question is, how do you find time to do your job and get some writing done? You can get a job that doesn’t require a lot of interaction with others, but that’s not all that easy. The funny thing is that the things you would do as a disciplined, professional writer will help you get writing done at your job.

In my experience, I’ve found that most office jobs are a complicated web of inefficiency. Most people come into work, have a coffee, check the emails, read the news on the web, respond to a few emails, go to a meeting, have lunch, surf some more, answer a few more emails, maybe some more meetings, maybe another coffee, and that’s the whole day. Anything that gets done happens when two or more people decide to do some work at the same time. It’s impossible for me to get certain things done because I’m waiting on so many others. Instead of sit back and wait, I actually crank up my efficiency and do what a professional writer does: prioritize tasks, compress actions, and stay off the web.

Prioritize: Figure out what needs to be done right away and do it. That also includes things that nag your brain. If you can’t focus knowing there are dirty dishes, you do the dishes. It takes 15-20 mins and then you can move on. Same thing works at work. If you’re the kind of person who feels the weight of unread emails in your inbox, fix that first thing in the door. At my job, most people don’t get rolling until 10am so I answer all the emails right away knowing they won’t get back to me for a few hours. I also get on the things that others are waiting on. Even the pain-in-the-ass tasks don’t take long when you focus on them.

Compress: I don’t know if others call it “compression,” but when I make a list of things that need to be done, I look it over and group together similar tasks. Then I compress them into one series of actions. Maybe there’s some form that needs to be filed immediately so I look at all the paperwork I have to do and I file the crucial form along with other forms that might not be as urgent. It’s so much easier for me to do one thing for a half hour than five minutes at a time throughout the day. It keeps me from getting fragmented and I get a lot more done. If something comes up that falls outside of my paperwork segment of the day, it gets pushed to the next day’s paperwork time.

No Internet!: Oh man. Toughest one ever, but so important. If you think you deserve a break every fifteen minutes to check the news or facebook or work on your new google +, then you’re just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, you’ll never be a professional writer. Writing takes so much discipline that most people don’t actually fail, they give up long before they finish anything. Use your computer at work for writing, not surfing. Or better yet, write longhand in a journal or on a legal pad and skip the computer temptation altogether.

I don’t know why I put up this entry since every writer who has written a writer’s advice article talks about discipline, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who say they can’t find the time. In an eight or nine hour work day, there are periods of down time where you can get writing done. Take a week or two and find the patterned holes in your day. If you can carve out at least an hour everyday at around the same time, your brain will actually start thinking of things to write at that same time every day. And staying busy makes you want to stay busy.

Obviously, it doesn’t work for every job, and I don’t pull this off cleanly every week. But since I don’t surf the web, I get everything done on the day-to-day, and I’m available to others, I’m getting some writing in while still doing my job. Seriously, look around your job and count the people who waste time all day. Or show up late. Or leave early. Or Both. You’ll run out of fingers without leaving your desk. If you work harder at your day job, you’ll get more writing done. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

4 thoughts on “Working at Work

  1. I agree with everything you said. My only problem is that my job IS the internet, so it’s virtually impossible for me to stay away from it. I get some of my writing done on the internet, like posting jokes on facebook/twitter and keeping my viewers entertained, but sometimes I just need to get away from it when writing videos.

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