Balancing Writing with a Day Job

College students across all majors have a mantra: “You have enough time for great grades, a social life, or sleep; pick two.”

Most first-time writers start out with a day job and write on the side with the hope of eventually turning a hobby into a full-blown career. My day job is currently a design student at a somewhat intense engineering school. I’m constantly buried under studio projects and badgered by class exams. Weeks will go by without me touching any personal writing projects.

The frustrating part is that, unlike hobbies such listening to music or reading, you can’t really write on the fly anywhere. You have to sit down with your laptop or notebook, preferably in a quieter place, in order to get anywhere on that 100,000-word tome you’re determined will outsell Harry Potter.

So whether your day job is student, waitress, white collar criminal, weatherman, or anything in between, here are a few ways to keep that story from going stale and that dream from being shelved.

1. Set daily/weekly word count goals. 

Some people set out with the goal to write 1,000 words a day, and some don’t have the time. If you’re like me and the day-to-day comes with a packed schedule, it’s helpful to set a weekly goal instead. I try to finish a chapter a week—this allows me to work more on slow days and ease off on busy ones.

2. Read during dead time.

Dead time is a swath of five to twenty minutes where you’re really not doing anything but it isn’t the time or place to bust out your laptop. Think supermarket lines, waiting for the bus, those awkward few minutes where you’re early for class. Always keep a book on your person in the event you must wait for something.

The best writers are voracious readers, so if you can’t find the time to write, find the time to read. This is easily achieved in the dead space right before something more obligatory is about to happen.

3. Develop a routine, but don’t chain yourself to it.

I wake up at 8:30 every morning and try to write a little before I go off to class. In the dead space between classes, I read or work on a blog post. Before I go to bed at night, I try to at least get half an hour of writing in and read before I fall asleep.

Developing a routine around when you plan to write will keep writing part of your daily life. Maybe it’s jot down a few ideas during your morning coffee. Maybe it’s keep a journal while you ride the bus every afternoon. Regardless of your schedule, if you want to finish a manuscript you must keep writing. At the same time, be flexible—I don’t always get that half hour of writing in every night, but I’m careful not to skip too many days in the row. It’s like going to the gym; skipping once won’t kill you, but you’ll never progress if you stop showing up all together.

4. Prioritize, prioritize.

You don’t have time for every hobby on top of a day job, food, and sleep. I really want to get into illustration and learn French and balance my job as Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day.

Sit down and write out every single one of your commitments. Now go through and star them—3 stars for time-intensive, high priorities; 2 stars for medium priorities; and 1 star for smaller priorities or less time-intensive tasks. Mine looks something like this:

Newspaper Editor-in-Chief***

Writing/Getting Published***

Learn Spanish and French*

Illustration**

Design major studio classes**

Being an active member of my sorority*

I dedicate the most hours of my week to the 3-star items. I’ll never be fluent in French or Spanish, unfortunately, and I only post a couple times a week on my illustration Instagram, but the newspaper is still afloat and I got a manuscript request from an agent last week. You have to accept that sometimes there are things you want to do but can’t because you just don’t have the time.

That’s how I’m trying to balance writing with a day job. Not easy, but worth it. How are you all keeping that balance?

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