Tick, tock. Tick tock. Are you working yet? Sometimes, the only schedule worth keeping is the one you make yourself.
Whenever I fear that my life hasn't progressed, I think back to the way I lived while I wrote my first novel. I had a taxing full-time job and a dirty apartment that I shared with two housemates. During the week, on a good night, I'd get off by seven, then go home and eat tuna fish or uncooked tofu before sitting at my desk until midnight. I gave most Saturdays to writing as well. Sundays were a wonderful release, but otherwise I didn't have much of a social life. I was often exhausted and, despite few expenses, perpetually on the edge of financial disaster.
Yet I remember feeling a euphoric sense of rightness. I was driven by a passionate longing: I'm going to finish this thing, and I will never have to live this way again.
I did finish, and my life did change—not completely, but in many good ways. I still had to earn money, but I didn't need my day job anymore. I no longer wrote late at night while trying not to fall asleep. The life I'd long dreamed of had happened. But the euphoric sense of rightness was gone. Whether you're a writer or a Web designer or an entrepreneur, working for yourself means that it's you who defines the acceptable workday. Now this new luxury of controlling my own schedule seemed to be controlling me. Meanwhile, my freedom to make my own schedule had overwhelmed me. I tried and discarded one regimen after another. I felt guilty for dreaming of play while I worked, and for failing to work when I played. I didn't really cherish either anymore. Because all my ideas about work had been formed in the traditional workplace, I felt that I kept falling short: If I used to go to work for eight hours a day, why couldn't I write for eight hours at home? Similarly, in my old life I thought of leisure as a reward for my labors, not as a recharging period during which ideas germinate.
My rhythms seemed to be three uninterrupted hours for writing first thing in the day, with an option for more if things were going well but the equally legitimate option to quit if they weren't; sandwich fixings in the fridge so I wouldn't spend time and energy figuring out what to have for lunch; no social plans with anyone—no exceptions!—before 5 p.m.; an hour at the gym before dinner; guilt-free evenings and weekends off to unwind with my boyfriend.
Once I accepted those choices and built a schedule around them, I was amazed by how much I got done. And not only that—I felt the sense of rightness again.
More On Having a Successful Career
From the October 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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