The 24/7 Work week

JT Ellison

I have been the absent-minded professor lately. It’s the worst feeling in the world. I’ve lost the beautiful silver and rope badge holder Randy gave me for my birthday, can’t find my earbuds to my phone (which means no talking in the car, I need to be hands free to handle the new behemoth I’m driving, ie: the foster truck), misplaced the receipt for a very expensive blouse that needs to be returned. I stepped in as a media escort for one of my literary heroes, Diana Gabaldon, and ended up driving the wrong way three times, made wrong turns, nearly ran a red light. And that’s just the past week.

Knowing I was becoming a stress puppy, I signed up for a virtual Zen retreat. I know that’s an oxymoron, but the concept is sound – the retreat consists of emails with podcasts, discussions, guided meditations, just like you were at an actual retreat. One little problem. I’ve been too busy to open the emails and actually participate.

In and of themselves, nothing on this list is world-ending. Add them all up, though, and it’s indicative of a more serious problem.

I. Am. Distracted.

Why am I so distracted? Now, there’s a good question. Stress over the new book, which isn’t exactly writing itself? Stress over trying to keep the marketing and promotion side of the business under control, coiled for the perfect opportunity to strike and get my name in front of millions of people? (Okay, thousands. Hundreds. Ten?) Stress over maintaining some semblance of normalcy while traveling all over the country to attend conferences, trade shows and literary festivals? Stress about personal issues that I have absolutely no control over?

You get the idea. Things are a little crazy around here. Randy’s business has taken off and he has more work than he can handle. I feel the same way. And the response to having more work than you can handle is… you work all the time.

We writers are a rare breed. Every moment of our day is related to our work, even when we have full-time jobs. Every conversation is loaded with possibility, each chance meeting, traffic jam, song on the radio… anything and everything triggers our internal senses. Commit that shaft of light to memory, the look on that woman’s face, the smell of the wet asphalt, the indescribable color of that fallen leaf. It’s no wonder we go on overload sometimes.

I already knew the bane of being self-employed is getting yourself to stop working and actually focus on living life. I didn’t realize that everyone seems to be having this problem until I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, which I found via Karen Doherty on the wonderful Quo Vadis blog.

We are a twenty-four/seven world now. We are immediately accessible not only to our bosses, our friends, and our family, but to strangers as well. Facebook, Twitter, e-mail etc., is our main path of communication. And they don’t close for business at 5 p.m. five days a week. Being self-employed is even worse. Instead of having a set schedule – in the office at 8:30, lunch at 12, home at 5:30 (or 9) – we have to mandate our own time. Some folks are brilliant at this. Some can’t find enough hours in the day.

That’s what being driven is all about. Who can fault that?

But…

The WSJ article was a wake up call for me. I wrote a few weeks back about how social networking is killing our creative spirit. I see now that’s its much more than that. Our inability to turn off, the relax, to let things go for a few hours. That’s what’s killing us. I don’t know about you, but I’m on the computer pretty much from the moment I get up to the time I go to bed. Yes, I turn it off for TV and reading, but it’s still an all-consuming presence.

When’s the last time you took an hour to yourself? No kids, no music, no planner, no computer. No multi-tasking, not even slipping a few minutes of reading in. Just you, living in the moment.

Yeah. Me too.

What’s the solution? Well, the WSJ article’s suggestion of one day a week completely unplugged is a good start. I can do that. With a thorough understanding of what I need to accomplish during the week, altering the allocation of time should be relatively simple. I use a time map anyway, I’ll just shift some things around. Cuts will have to be made, and there’s no question where those will come from – online and the social networks. I’ve actually been pretty good lately, (it all feels so superficial anyway) so that’s not a big loss.

Slowly but surely, I feel like I’ll be able to take my life back from stress and worry. Will I be able to shut my brain off for a whole twenty-four hours? That’s doubtful, but so long as I have a notebook near me, I can write things down as they occur and move on. I won’t be setting a slew of new goals—I agree with this premise on Mnmlist.com that setting too many goals, too stringent goals can mean we’re determining our happiness based on whether or not we achieve those goals—but I am going to try to unplug for a day a week.

We’ll see if that helps.

What about you? Have you already come to the realization that being plugged in 24/7 is bad for you? Or are you still grasping, trying to find the right balance? And are you sick to death of these types of articles? I know time management isn’t exactly mystery oriented – well, it is for me, because how I manage my time is directly proportional to the quality of my writing, but you know what I mean… : )

Also, in much more fun news, here’s the brilliant cover for my newest book, THE COLD ROOM (2-23-10)

That means we’ve also redesigned JTEllison.com and everything! Take a peek at the site and let me know what you think!

Wine of the Week: 2005 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva

30 thoughts on “The 24/7 Work week

  1. Chris Hamilton

    The problem with being plugged in all the time is that you lose track of your goals because just keeping up with the social networking becomes a goal in itself. I got involved in Twitter and social networking and all that as a way to sell my writing when I get published. Now I write a blog post every day for the Florida Writers Conference blog (it’s a great conference, you should come), and I’m writing more than ever…just not on my WIP.

    And considering that work is busier than ever now that we’ve outsourced stuff and I’m Lucky To Have a Job, there’s not a lot of energy left.

    Reply
  2. James Scott Bell

    I hear ya, J.T. We are not wired for 24/7. I try to do two things: 1) Take Friday afternoons off. Get my writing done in the morning, then goof off, go to a bookstore, read, watch a movie, ride a bike, whatever. 2) Sunday, no writing at all. A true "writing sabbath." I sometimes have to fight myself on this (having the Jets on TV helps). But I find that it re-charges my batteries. Monday becomes a much more productive day as a result. Your day-a-week unplug will work wonders, you’ll see.

    Cool cover, BTW. Congrats.

    Reply
  3. billie

    The one day a week unplugged sounds good, but I would also advocate for unplugging several hours every single day, especially if that kind of "offline" time is not built into your life.

    I’m not in much danger of staying plugged in too much, but for me it’s getting too much stuff on the calendar and then feeling overwhelmed. I have to have at least 3 full days a week completely clear to stay sane.

    If I don’t stay functional and sane, everything around me starts to fall apart – family, animals, work, writing. So I protect those free days.

    I think we have to look at it from that side of things – not how much can we cram in w/o losing it, but how much "me time" can we protect to remain calm, happy, and effective.

    Reply
  4. Alafair Burke

    I’m going to start unplugging on Sundays. For the past few years, I’ve been telling myself (and my husband) that it’s better to stay on top of the online world rather than face a backlog down the road, but I’m increasingly persuaded that the 24/7 computer connection is seriously unhealthy.

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  5. Dana King

    I keep a calendar where I limit how much stuff I do every day. Crises take precedence, of course, but it’s surprising how few real crises we have when you think about it. When the scheduled activities are done, the rest of the day or evening is mine. I may write some more, I may spend more time online, or I may watch TV or play a game, but it’s my time to do what I want. If it’s something important I really want to do, I’ll schedule it. (Like tonight’s hockey game.) I’ve got to where I get at least an hour or so to myself jyst about every workday, and definitely on weekends.

    What makes it hard is that it takes discipline, and we don’ t think of applying discipline to our leisure time, when we’re supposed to relax. The trick is in applying the discipline to ensure you get some leisure time; then you’re on your own.

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  6. PK the Bookeemonster

    Sadly, I’m the opposite. Currently unemployed so I have apparently massive amounts of time to do things, but I have the Olympic gold in time wasting — not even making time for reading (shock). My obession right now is current events, monitoring news websites. Bottle up some of that drive you got and send it on over. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    First of all, I love the cover. It really stands out–it’s something I would pick up in a bookstore.
    Second – if I had time in my 24/7 world I’d actually write a response to your post deserving of the wonderful post itself. But I’m late for work, again, after a full night of writing. Time-management is not my forte. Time, time, time. Pressure, stress, financial chaos. Balanced with the excitement of having just been published. It’s all Yin/Yang. The excitement wins out.
    I am, however, looking forward to unplugging. I don’t Twitter, for the reasons you mentioned above. Even in the middle of all the chaos I managed to schedule a three-day get-away with the family, on borrowed money, to a little spot in Central California (wine country) where cell phone signals don’t exist. I felt healthy, for a few days.

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    JT, I’m with you. "You need a vacation," my husband says. I don’t really. I just need to reprioritize a bit. Take lunch on the roof deck instead of at the computer. Listen to music for an hour instead of the TV. Take a long bath instead of a quick shower. All of that would feel like a vacation and probably go a long way toward feeling uplugged.

    Reply
  9. David Shrock

    The best part about unplugging is that it makes us more productive when we get back to work. A short walk or reading a chapter at lunch helps. I like to take a short bike ride each day. Every once in a while, I take a day to try something new or do something I haven’t done in a while. Completely unplugging for a day helps our minds re-focus and become much more productive.

    Love the cover.

    Reply
  10. Maral

    WOW – I love this blog! Found it only recently through SinC, or MWA, or Tess Gerritsen, or something….

    First, Cannonau di Sardegna is a great choice. Had this first in Chapel Hill, at a bar that served warmed chicken liver pate crostinis and WOW was that some amazing food.

    Second, as a full time lawyer and aspiring writer (because law sat on my life like the 800 lb gorilla and squashed me flat) bravo, you’ve nailed it. Email from my writer friens = fun. 100 emails from the firm, the ABA, the local business magazine and tax news services = my brain is melting.

    I’ve been taking more and more weekend time unplugged, and have acquired and love my Neo – I can pound out first drafts with no internet access. Any little thing helps, I suppose…

    I’m also limiting Facebook to one viewing of my wall per workday. It is the only way I can keep in contact with a few long time friends, and a few lawyer friends who won’t use other email for social things, but that one check-in is it – no follow-ups for banter on posts, etc. Just checking to make sure everyone is alive and accounted for, and then I’m off. Farmville, Mafia Wars etc. – I refuse. SO many better things to do with life than play games, take the surveys, etc. It’s evil.

    Reply
  11. Cara

    Thought provoking post, JT. We were in the Sierra’s this summer, no phone reception, no lnternet very unplugged and ended up telling ghost stories around the fire. A real brain vacation and like returning to tribal roots.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    Chris, I’m talking even more than the social networking. It’s the work too. When we pile it all up, we are constantly working. I remember back when I was in an office they used to say word smarter, not harder. I think we all could do a bit of that.

    Jim, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done it before, and the one thing that keeps dragging me back is Murderati. I always feel like I’m a bad blogmate if I don’t stop by, and unlearning that response is a hard one for me. But Alex and Cornelia will certainly understand if I don’t comment until Sunday, I’m sure… (right, ladies???)

    Billie, that’s it exactly, how much me time can we sacrifice before everything goes up in flames???

    Alafair, I’m having that issue too. If I don’t keep on top of my online responsibilities, they’ll pile up into something out of my control. But I’ve noticed that when it happens, I prioritize more and things that aren’t really important just get deleted. Saves time in the long run.

    Dana, the Quo Vadis blog did a really cool post a while back on the manager’s schedule versus a maker’s schedule. Looks like you’ve already figured that out. For the rest of us, here’s the post: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

    PK, I didn’t know they were giving medals in procrastination. At least you recognize that you’re doing it – I sometimes find myself hours later with nothing to show and wonder how in the world that happened. The trick is to forgive yourself and move on. Since you have so much free time, what about scheduling it and shooting for a dream you never thought you’d have time to pursue?

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    Stephen, that’s my dream – a vacation spot with no internet, no iPhone, no laptop… I just had a nice 10 day vacation, and spent half of it on the phone and email arranging for a publicity event I needed to deal with that popped up. Popping up isn’t nice. But if I hadn’t been reachable, I would have missed out on a huge opportunity. The balance is in there somewhere… And I can imagine your getaway. I LOVE that area.

    Louise, that’s it. I’ve been trying that around here and it works very well. Can I come have lunch on your rooftop? Lunch for me is usually Starbucks. Sad.

    David, nice to see you. I’m getting a bike – haven’t had one for years. I like the idea of slipping out and taking a tool around the neighborhood.

    Maral, sounds like you’ve got the hang of it already! Good luck with the writing, and with staying away from the lawyering!

    Cara, I have my eye on this resort in British Columbia, where the cabins hang out over the water and there’s nothing – no TV, no phones, no Internet. A few days there could do wonders for my imagination – I bet a ghost story or two would blossom…

    Back to work for me, folks. See you after 4…

    Reply
  14. billie

    I want to add my radical approach to the "to be done list.

    Once a week, when you’ve worked through as much as you can and there’s a bunch of stuff left, just delete it. If it’s on recycled envelopes, as my to do lists are, ball them up and throw them away.

    The things that matter have been done, and anything important that gets tossed will come back on the radar. We do not have to do everything, nor do we have to keep track of everything. The world has its own energy and chaos does not ensue if we stop thinking we have total control.

    I have been doing this for years with no ill effects in my life. Nothing that really mattered has not gotten done. No one has stopped being my friend.

    Reply
  15. Allison A. Davis

    This is post really underscores what I have been thinking over the last year. I recently got divorced (and unfortunately lost access to some wilderness that did add to my sanity) and as a result, moved and purged. As I tossed things out, one by one, I looked at them and said, is this beautiful or useful? If not, I gave it away. There was so much stuff I had "just in case" — or "I’ll get to it." I realized that, while I do save momentos, notes and the like, there was so much I was carrying around that it added to the stress I had.

    Same with the day to day stuff and time. We pack in so much that there’s no room for spontaneity, or something unexpected or new. I now consciously try to find things I can let go of to give myself some time (give myself a break). As writers with other jobs or careers, we’re all type A, and we’re hardest on ourselves. I read it in your blog posts every day. Of course we need down time (and exercise and…). So clearing out a little time is like cleaning out your closet.

    I reserve an hour after I get home at night to flop on the couch, read the mail, listen to the end of the ballgame or whatever (it’s usually about 8 p.m. — lawyers above, do you hear me?) and let the dust settle. I also reserve Sundays, or as much of it as I can, to be unplanned, unscheduled. When you work 50 hour weeks, hard to do, but necessary.

    The best vacation I ever took was three weeks renting a house on St. Lucia (it was pretty plain, in the city) and after two weeks my husband and son had enough and went back to the mainland and I had a week to myself, plenty of wine and groceries, high on a hill with a view and no one but birds to talk to. I was worried I would go crazy but after the first 24 hours, I was in heaven. I wrote in the morning, painted in the afternoon, wrote in the evening, enjoyed the sunrise with coffee, the sunset with wine. No one to judge, comment, or ripple the water but me. The writing was so much easier.

    in 2011, I get a three month sabbatical from my law firm (what a gift)…I want to spend at least one month somewhere doing exactly that, full retreat, no make up, no schedule, no day to day chores or responsibilities. Looking for where now. thanks for the brain food ‘rati.

    Reply
  16. Dana King

    JT,
    Thanks for pointing out that blog post. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.

    I guess what I do is a hybrid. I have a certain number of tasks to do each day, but when I do each is flexible based on when I have a suitable chunk of time. As my Beloved Spousal Equivalent can attest, unanticipated challenges–clogged drain, big ugly spider in kitchen, household project that unexpectedly needs someone large right away–can set me off for the day, and I don’t like it a bit.

    Reply
  17. pari noskin taichert

    JT,
    You know how I feel about this. But let me tell you, it’s difficult to completely unplug for even one full day a week. I try, but often fail.

    However, I also try to take daily walks — 1-2 hours — without even being plugged into music. It’s amazing how much of the world you notice when you just stop.

    I’m wondering what it’s going to be like for the next two weeks to work w/o any social networking, blogging, even distractions from the kids . . . I think my creativity will soar without the insane NOISE of all of this demanding external media.

    Reply
  18. JT Ellison

    Hit my word count early, so I’m moving to a new task, then reading. Yay! This might actually work!

    Billie, I do that. I usually use a yellow notepad for to do lists for the week. If it’s been a few weeks and it wasn’t vital, I rip and throw away. You’re right, the important things will come back around in their own time. Love it.

    Allison, a vacation to be jealous of, for sure. I’m sorry to hear about your divorce. But the purge mentality is strong here – I was desperate to delete all my files on my computer and start fresh, and lo and behold, my laptop died, so I got to do just that. Having only what I want on my computer was the first step. Now I’m applying that to my house – closets, cabinets, magazine, everything. So freeing.

    Dana, my husband is like that too – on certain days a manager’s schedule, on others the makers. It’s fascinating to watch, actually.

    Pari, part of the impetus for this blog was your upcoming retreat. I think you’re going to be so inspired that it will spill back into your everyday life in unimaginably wonderful ways…

    Chris, step away from the computer… ; )

    Reply
  19. Zoe Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post – and the reason I’m a little late to it is because I absolutely refuse to have mobile internet access while I’m away from home. You just gotta unplug sometime!

    Of course, at this very moment I’m sitting outside a McDonald’s using their wireless internet connection to do this … ;-]

    And the cover of THE COLD ROOM looks stunning, by the way!

    De-stress while you have the chance – your ability to absorb stress only has so much elasticity in it. Once it’s snapped, it’s never quite the same again.

    Reply
  20. BCB

    I completely unplugged one day last week. Woke up feeling so tired I didn’t think I could function. Called the boss and told him I was exhausted and not coming in to work. Spent the day doing nothing. Didn’t check email or read blogs or news feeds. Didn’t even check the weather report. I was too tired to care about any of it. Only answered the phone if it was one of the kids. Took a nap. Or two. Wandered from room to room and stared out the window quite a bit. And just thought about things. All sorts of things.

    And I realized I need that down time and haven’t been getting enough of it. Time to think, but also time when there isn’t any noise or distraction or input. Time without demands for my attention or reaction. It’s a shame I had to get to the point of exhaustion before I realized it. So yeah, I’ll be doing my best to schedule more unscheduled time.

    And congratulations on a GREAT cover. I love it!

    Reply
  21. Fran

    Back when we lived in NM, Lillian and I were active members of the SCA. I gotta say, those weekends out in the middle of nowhere where technology is actively forbidden were such a relief. It was nice to sit around a fire and just talk. We miss it.

    Carving space is crucial to our continued well-being, but somehow up here we haven’t found a way to manage it. Congratulations to all of you who have!

    Love love love the cover, JT! Cannot wait to read what’s inside, though!

    Reply
  22. RKCharron

    Thanks for the personal thoughtful post JT.
    I think I’ll take your advice & unplug for a day a week.
    That must’ve been awesome being with Diana Gabaldon.
    I’m glad Randy’s business is booming!
    All the best,
    RKCharron
    xoxo

    Reply
  23. homeopathie

    Hello
    You have given very nice article and I appreciate you for this.Some times it happens to us which you said in your article.Thank you very much for sharing this with us.Keep doing good work

    Reply

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