It’s taken me a few weeks to write this blog post, because when I look at my to-do list after working into the evening…
Well, at those moments, it feels disingenuous to write a post on work-life balance.
I suppose that’s one of my main points, though: you won’t always nail it. Sometimes you’ll have the perfect balance, some months you’ll have drastically too little in the way of sleep or decompression time, and then there are some months where it feels like you just can’t manage to get your butt in a chair and write at all.
One of the particular problems in the indie author world is that there are so many moving parts to manage: not just the writing, but the edits, the cover art, the advertising, the bookkeeping, the multi-author projects, the social media posts, the audiobooks, the translations... Any and all of these can easily consume your available brain space—or, through the sheer number of tasks, exhaust you before you’ve even started one of them.
I hope you’re going somewhere with this, you say. And I am, don’t worry. I’m not just here to bum you out. If I thought this enterprise was doomed, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I’d be off trying to find a different career.
So, to start off with, dear reader, I’m going to make a few assumptions about you:
- You’re not going to give up writing. Maybe it’s what pays the bills, or maybe it’s what sets your heart on fire. Whatever the reason, you won’t.
- At some point in this writing endeavor, you looked around at the sheer amount of work you were doing, the number of items on the list, the number of details, the number of hours you’d spent learning what those to-do list items even needed to be… And you were overwhelmed by the necessity of fitting all of those tasks into the amount of time that exists
- At some points, you’ve been so tired and overwhelmed that you’ve wondered if this is all for you. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been, it’s just Too Hard.
- Given that you’re reading this blog post, and that you’re a human being, I’m going to assume that you’ve had trouble with work-life balance.
So, I’m going to let you in on a property of the universe that applies to running a business (as well as gasses, and planning weddings): it will expand to fit whatever space you give it. If you give yourself 2 years to plan a wedding, you will be no less stressed than if you give yourself 4 months. If you devote 6 hours instead of 4 to your business, you will somehow still have the same number of leftover to-do list items.
And, if you’re like me, you unconsciously signed over every waking moment when you started doing this, so that you began to feel vaguely dissatisfied and annoyed with yourself when you weren’t working. After all, there’s always something you should be doing, or learning, or reading, or learning to do better, or fine-tuning, or…
When I was a pre-teen, my mother let me in on a secret. She told me that the main lesson of college was that it was impossible to get every task done well, or even done at all—that college was made to be so overwhelming that you had to prioritize, or you would just sink.
Running a business is a lot like that.
So, here’s my first piece of advice about work-life balance: stop driving yourself crazy, trying to become efficient enough to get it all done. Stop telling yourself that you could do it all if you could just buckle down a bit longer, get up a bit earlier, work in better sprints.
You won’t ever get that for the long run. Sure, some weeks or months, you will. Absolutely. I’ve never met a more determined, awe-inspiringly productive group of people than independent authors. And, with that assessment in mind, I’d like you to ask yourself the following question:
When things slide out of balance, is it actually me that’s failing to get everything done…or am I asking too much of myself?
Work-life balance is possible. I believe that. Oh, sure, sometimes you’ll swing out of whack, but I believe that you—yes, you!—can spend the rest of your writing career relatively near that ideal balance point.
Here’s the catch: first, you must be ruthless about which pieces of your business need to be done, and which need to be done by you, and then you have to be aware enough to see when things are sliding out of place.
So, first of all, let’s look at which components of your business exist:
- Content creation—books need to get written
- Research—research on genres and tropes, writing courses, learning about running a business, marketing tutorials, etc. (you made decide that some of these tasks go in Administration instead—all that matters is that you know the tasks exist and you’ve noted them down somewhere!)
- Administration—books need to get somewhere that people can buy them, technical issues, formatting, bank accounts, business registration, taxes, managing contractors, etc. All of the things you have to do in order to keep the business running.
- Marketing—covers, blurbs, advertising, social media, and all other things that get your book in front of your target readers
For your business, write out the individual tasks that must be completed in each column (content creation, research, administration, and marketing). Note down how much time they take, and what results they have produced. Ask yourself if the task is essential. Ask yourself if you need to be the one who does it. Often, your kneejerk reaction will be to insist that you must be the one who completes a certain task—but, just as often, this is not the case. Think creatively, ask yourself if there’s a way that someone else could do any of the given tasks, and don’t worry too much right now about the cost of outsourcing them.
Once you’ve got a list of tasks, categorized by time, how essential they are, and whether or not you must be the one to do them, you’ll have a much better idea of how to structure your time. You can begin to plan your weeks or months with a better idea of how many working hours you will need to spend. You can make better release date estimates. You will know immediately which tasks can slide and which cannot. You can look at outsourcing specific tasks.
Now, instead of the looming specter of “all the work you need to do” and “all the things I’m behind on,” you have something quantifiable. That, you can work with. Your solutions will be unique to you and your business, but the first step is always quantifying the problem.
As with using free weights, your goal isn’t so much to have the weight at the top of the arc as it is to do the work of getting it there. So it will be with bringing yourself back to balance, whether you’ve been doing too much, or too little: your goal is always to be bringing yourself backto balance, and it’s a skill that will get stronger, the more you use it.
The skill you must cultivate, above all others, is the skill to course-correct, to see that things have wandered off and multiplied, like a herd of little task-bunnies, and to get everything back in its lane and handled by the correct person (including getting rid of some of the task-bunnies entirely. Sorry, bunnies. Back to the ether with you).
As one of my therapists once asked me—a twenty-something year old woman who looked incredibly young and yet managed to fill any room she was in with an immense feeling of peace—“What’s your plan for when your mental health slides out of place next time?” To her, bad swings were inevitable. They didn’t diminish the work I had done to get better before, and they weren’t anyone’s fault. Having a plan didn’t make them any more or less likely—it just meant that I could pick myself up and dust myself off more quickly.
Running a business is the same. Internal and external factors will collide like waves of different heights and trajectories. You will get knocked off-course. No amount of planning you do now can keep that from happening.
What you can do is learn to pick yourself up and steer yourself back on course. (Ah, mixed metaphors.)
The secrets of work-life balance are thus:
- You can’t do everything
- Not everything needs to be done
- In order to decide what to do, you must quantify which tasks are outstanding
- You will always need to keep an eye on your work-life balance and guide it back to center
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering topics such as hiring Virtual Assistants and other contractors, and also doing analysis of what aspects of the business need to be done for your ideal writing career. Stay tuned, and send us any questions you have.