Ask Tania: The work/life balance ... how do I write AND manage a household?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Dear Tania, 

My question is about making time to write amongst a day filled with jobs, family commitments and household tasks that just don't do themselves (sad face). How do I write AND manage a household? How do you do it?


Hi, Cate,

I would have to say this is one of the questions I'm most often asked! So it's clearly something a lot of people struggle with ... including me.

It's a convoluted topic, so let's break it down:

They say there's nothing like mother (or dad) guilt. Although I'm not a guilt-tripper by nature, as my writing has grown into full-time work, the seemingly endless hours I need to put into it has seen that sordid guilt trickle in. Ach--it's SUCH a pain.

The way I deal with it? I remind myself that mothers (and dads) need to be people, too. We also need to do what we love--and invest the time in doing it--and, REALLY importantly, to model passion and drive and commitment and hard work for our kids.

Neither of my kids go without food, clean clothes, a warm house, a great education and oodles of love. Sure, I may not spend endless hours playing Monopoly or watching blockbuster superhero movies with them, but they get my full attention when they need it or ask for it.

Admittedly, both are teens now, and pretty much do their own thing/are out a lot of the time. So, I know this is harder for women (or men) with littlies. When mine were little, I would write early in the morning or late at night or when Dad took them to the park--and I would actually write, not stack the dishwasher. I know this, too, can be hard, especially if you're exhausted. But, as I'll discuss shortly... it really comes down to How Much You Want It.

When my kids were smaller, my house was perennially prepped for a Vogue photo shoot. Now, anyone I know is forbidden from doing the pop-in, lest they catch the six inches of dust under my dining table, the opaque glow of a long-unwashed window, and me looking like an old bag lady with limp hair, ugg boots and a stain on my top.

The way I deal with our house is this: everything has to be in its place, with a clean kitchen and bathrooms. Polished windows and floors, vacuumed furniture and beaten rugs are optional. Plant watering is as occasional as vacuuming and cleaning out fridges and cupboards. We certainly don't live in a pigsty, and I need our house to be uncluttered (for sanity as well as prettiness), but I decided long ago that dust under the bed is better left to accumulate and whisked away in a cleaning frenzy... whenever I get around to it.

I'm all about smarter not harder when it comes to freeing up time from the dreaded housework. I think the best way to do this is cull and declutter, then cull and declutter again. When you've finished doing that, declutter and cull. Basically, the less stuff you have, the less stuff you have to deal with. We all know how chaos derails sanity and sucks away precious time, but it also kyboshes creative impulse. So this step is vital.

I have lots of cupboards and containers and folders and I just stash everything in them until they're screaming to be sorted (or the tax agent is pestering). The only exception are things I know I'll have to deal with soon. I want them out of my head, so I pay a bill the moment in comes in. I answer emails straight away. I get niggly stuff done early in the morning so I have a full day of unfettered creation ahead.

As for the general tidy-up, I get up half an hour early and go into steam train mode... unpack the dishwasher, clean up the breakfast dishes, pick up the clothes, wipe down bathroom, etc. Then it's all done by 8am and I don't have to pass thought to it again, leaving that gloriously full day of unfettered creation ahead.

I abhor the pick-up. One great tip is to grab a laundry basket and run through the house, stashing junk in it, then run from room to room to deposit it. Speedy as anything--et voila--your daily workout!

If I need to run errands and make appointments, I slot everything into a single day then literally plan my route so there's no backtracking. If something happens and I have an hour spare, I might call a girlfriend to see if she's free for that long-overdue coffee. I literally pack in as much as I can and it's the ONLY time I'll make lists, so I don't forget anything. Yes, it's an entire day, but then absolutely everything is done, and I have 6 other full days to dedicate to creation.

Lastly, DON'T MAKE LISTS!!! (unless you're planning a gad-about day). The amount of time people spend on planning what they are going to do is frightening. Don't make lists about what rooms you're going to tackle and what items you're going to cull. Just cull! Don't plan. Don't talk about it with friends. Just do it!

Fundamentally, if you can't keep all you need to get done in your head, then you are doing FAR too much.

social life.
What's that? Seriously?

I look at my social life in two ways.

Firstly, I've had one. It was huge. It lasted almost three decades and I packed a lifetime into it (also paid the price for it, but that's another story...). I'm going to have another social life eventually, and I look forward to that very much. For now, though, it's about work, house and kids. It really is that simple (and don't simple concepts often evade us create types?).

Additionally, most of my social life is actually my work life right now. The majority of active friends are my colleagues--and I find myself frequently interacting with them (mostly online, sadly), so I certainly don't 'want for' social interaction.

The second way I look at it is this: a hole-in one is absolutely possible. The only thing it's dependent on is how many times you're prepared to hit the ball.

That's how I see my career. If I want to get a hole-in-one, I need to keep at it--I need to put the hours in and work hard. And that takes time. Ergo, I need to compromise other parts of my life to make writing, family and health my absolutely priorities. It means I have to compromise on other things like travel, beloved hobbies, training for the national rolling-down-hill championships, and ... a social life.

It won't last forever. It is what it is.

If you work full- or part-time at another job, prioritising your writing is even harder, of course. But again--let's get real here--it depends on how many times you're willing to hit that ball. On how much you REALLY want it. They say that people will absolutely commit time and energy to something they really, deeply want. I'm not saying it's easy--but it's a choice. There's always nights and weekends and holidays.

social media and emailing.
Yes. We're going to have THAT talk.

It's a time-sucker... but much, much more than you even know, because not only do we spend too much time on these things, we also spend far too much time thinking about them, and having them quash our creativity, especially if we've become despondent, frustrated, furious, desperate or railroaded by the information we're subjected to online.

If you have to install a net nanny, then do it. But suffice to say that social media is only a neighbour, not a friend. It's someone who's always there and is happy to
wave hello and have a quick chat, and maybe even spread the word, but that's it. So treat it like your Sometimes Neighbour. Don't be tempted to turn it on when you have a brain freeze. Go for a walk instead. Have your time with it, exchange some information, then wave goodbye and get back to your real life.

Don't check social media first thing in the morning. Don't check it last thing at night. It's creativity- and sleep-crushing in every way.

Emailing--honestly, we are killing ourselves. Fifteen years ago, how many letters did you write in a week? Maybe one? If that? Then why are you sending 35 letters + a day? Why? it's nuts!

So, stop it. If you simply must email, make it succinct, and do it all in one hit. Then turn off email so you can focus.

One last tip I have on emailing, I respond to 99% of them immediately. Leaving them waiting/hanging over your head is a sure fire way to clutter your mind and add to that seemingly endless 'To Do' list. Just rip that bandaid off and respond straight away. Get it over with. If you're writing succinct emails, as you should be, it won't be a big deal, and then--voila--it's done--and out of your head.

Responding immediately also sets things in motion, and when you're a writer, that's exactly what you want. And in terms of your recipient, there's nothing worse than waiting days or weeks for someone to respond to something that could take 2 seconds. It quite literally drives me insane sometimes, especially as we're using email like an office situation... if a colleague approached you in-office and asked you a quick question, would you just sit there and ignore them for three weeks? No. You'd respond immediately.

Now, this one, you simply CANNOT compromise. No way, no how. I try my hardest to eat well (stacks of plant foods and unprocessed foods and a daily green smoothie) and physically move whenever I can. I go for at least one walk a day, plus yoga, and hopping up from my computer to wriggle around, every hour, on the hour (also see Keeping Physically Fit as an Author).

I also take care of my head and heart by taking time out (I was going to say 'to do what I love', but most of what I love is writing, illustrating and reading, ie: work!), visiting a naturopath, shunning the news, avoiding conflict and drama online (ie: the news) and in life, and living as balanced a life as I possibly can.

This is all non-negotiable, and looking after your health means you'll sharpen your axe, and be in a fresher, more lucid, more productive, more creative frame of mind for your work.

your creative pursuit.
Writing. Illustrating. Editing. Presenting. Whatever it is that sends your heart aflutter, needs a lot of commitment and time, and there's NO shame in that. But the bottom line here is TIME.

You just have to give it time. Schedule it in your diary, if you must, but just DO IT. It really is that simple.

I tend to get 'other things' done first thing in the morning so I'm free for the rest of the day to create. That would include things like emailing, prepping presentations or other material, reviews, media, blog posts (like this one, at 9am in the morning) and appointments. Then I have the rest of the day unfettered--and for me, that's an ideal way to work, as I need and love long blocks of uninterrupted time.

Don't talk about it. Don't make lists about it. Don't email people about it--especially long-winded emails. Don't faff and plan it. Don't make excuses and don't FEAR it. Sit down and just do it--dirty hair and a stain on your top and dust under the beds and all. Don't wait 'until'. Don't procrastinate. Don't be distracted. Close the door. Turn off the phone and email. Create. The blocks will evaporate if you push through, and you'll enter the flow.

your daily schedule.
I think daily schedules really help us get maximum output for our time. Spend half an hour going over a schedule that would work for you (of course, some days will railroad it, but that's okay). Then stick to it. For inspiration, here's my daily schedule that I stick to (most days!):

6:30 am
Up and into the kitchen, make tea, prepare the family smoothie, unpack dishwasher, make beds, tidy things away, turn on computer, perhaps do my hair and face (not every day!), see the kids off to school.

Yoga and/or a walk.

Check emails and social media while I drink my smoothie.

Make a coffee and work on 'other' stuff, if needed (today it's this post).

Turn off email and social media, start creating and don't stop.

Get up on the hour every hour to exercise a little.

Eat lunch.

Check emails and social media.

Kids home some days and other days they are out. Continue on with work, if doable.

Prep dinner, spend time with family.

Return to work if in deadline or the evening situation allows it, but most nights, I take time off.

Bed. Read. Fall asleep despite eyes wanting to stay open to read.

At the moment, I work 7 days a week, but again, it depends on what else is happening, who's home, if we have something planned, etc. For me, it's not 'work'--it's pleasure, so 7 days is not an issue. I've lost count of how many times I've been asked how I 'get it all done'. That's how!!!

Stating the bleeding obvious here--everyone is different, and you need to take the time to formulate a plan that works for you, your commitments, goals and lifestyle.

Whatever the case, the simple fact remains--you just need to dedicate the hours to your craft, and shun as much as you can whilst still remaining balanced and healthy, and--of course--without the wheels falling off the house and family (though unpolished wheels are just fine).

How many times are you willing to hit the ball?

See all the questions so far ...

1 comment:

Cate Whittle said...

I love the way you break it all down into its constituent pieces... my big one is working around work. The housework left the building long ago (although it left guilt behind to keep me company :-) ) and family will always come first for me. Oh, and I think social media is probably the gremlin I really need to face. Thank you for your thoughts on this... I'm pondering on how I can tweak my schedule, now... Cate x

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