How I Get Shit Done Working from Home

The writer, podcaster and prolific Twitter-er Anne T. Donahue takes us through a typical bonkers week

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Over head view of a camera, iPad, planner, and juice / coffee on a wooden table

(Photograph: Stocksy)

I’ve fought the notion of “routine” since I first started working at home as a full-time freelance writer in 2009. At times I was convinced it made me boring (which isn’t true: I’m simply boring by default) or that it fuelled my workaholic tendencies (which fed my anxiety and sent me down the rabbit hole of what-ifs). And for the better part of this year, I began routines only to abandon them entirely, telling myself in the meantime that so many people I admire don’t adhere to set schedules, so neither should I.

Obviously, I was wrong. I love structure. I love my old-school paper planner, I love the false sense of control I get when I can stare due dates and evening plans in the face and figure out how to fit everything in. I love my lunch break and my morning coffee run and going to bed at a reasonable time so I can avoid wanting to scream into the abyss the next day. And while not every day can look identical (shoutout to meetings or podcast recordings or any number of things that may take me away from the computer), the ones that do bring me so much joy. I mean, sure: being too hard on myself has fed my anxiety and umpteen neuroses, but making my work day something I enjoy instead of something I feel pressured to follow has helped me avoid the negative. Or at least made me feel like I can handle what I take on.

So this is how a typical day looks when taking on a million things and telling myself that it’s fine, I’ve got it under control, please stop worrying, everybody. (Just remember: I scroll through Twitter for at least 30% of every hour because I’m a professional.)

10 a.m.

In the past, I’ve committed too hard and too fast to start times. One summer, I told myself that I’d be up and working by 8 a.m., while another summer I refused to abide by a schedule entirely. At one point, I told myself that getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning is helpful and healthy, and that pain is power and power is pain. And then I’d wake up later and later and feel worse and worse because I’d consider myself having failed.

I am fun.

So that mindset can go to hell. On days where I don’t have a morning commitment, I make sure I’m up, dressed, caffeinated (which I leave the house to get), and ready to roll by 10, so that I can create the illusion of “going to work.” I answer my emails, record important dates in my planner, and begin writing whatever’s due that day. But not before . . .

10 05 a.m.

. . . I figure out what to watch or listen to. I can’t work in silence unless I’m stressed to the point of wanting to cry; the week I wrote this, I was working with Wimbledon in the background. Currently, it’s the second season of The Crown, and then the BBC Radio 1 morning show, which is my favourite and brings me so much joy.

Podcasts are for the car.

10 15 a.m.

But okay, I love a list. I love a list so much that my planner is colour-coded with “out of the office” plans written down the right side of each page (meetings or phone calls or dinners), and pieces I need to hand in written on the left. So I begin budgeting time accordingly. I write what I know needs to be handed in first, and then after one piece is finished, I answer any new emails that have come in. Then, I write the next, and so on and so on and so on until I’m hungry and annoyed. I’m so anxious that everything will be taken away that I work fast, hoping to evade anyone who decides I don’t get to write anymore.

12 p.m. to 1 p.m.

My lunchtime routine is glamorous, so I’m sorry for making everybody reading this jealous: at some point between noon and 1:00 pm, I get up, I go to the grocery store, and I buy a sandwich. (Or sometimes I get pizza or chicken fingers or fish and chips or a sub or, in today’s case, fried noodles and rice from the mall.) I am the picture of clean eating.

Then, I go back to my apartment, read and answer more emails, scroll through Twitter, scroll through Instagram, and tell myself that in no way, shape or form, I will need a nap.

1:10 p.m.

I want a nap. I need a nap. If I’ve avoided too much online distraction, I might nap for a solid 15. But, most of the time, I feel guilty and terrible for doing anything unproductive, so I grab an iced tea and tell myself to get over it. Or, in today’s case, I’ve told myself that if I finish this piece before I leave for dinner downtown, I will buy myself a chocolate bar as a treat.

I am a child, is what I’m saying.

3 p.m.

And this is where the routine gets foggy. Not because I don’t remember my afternoons (but wouldn’t that be dramatic?), but because evening plans can change the day. So today: I’m meeting my friend in the west end of Toronto at 7 p.m. for dinner. But because I live in Cambridge, this means that I’ll have to live around 5 p.m. And that means, that between this piece, one before, and a few pitches to send this afternoon, I have to have everything wrapped up by 4:30 if I want to make sure I don’t look like a ghoul.

And if I had no plans? I’d write this piece, but then run any errands before coming back and taking care of cold pitches (pitches to editors I haven’t worked with before), pitches I’ve promised but haven’t delivered yet, pitches I’ve had to talk myself into sending (because, look: I have a lot to say about The Parent Trap’s 20th anniversary and am very worried I won’t be able to), emails and any due dates I wanted to get ahead of. But now we’re about to go down a few other roads.

Miscellaneous

So here’s the thing: the above is a typical “workday.” I write, I email, I try to hand everything in by the date my editor’s asked for it and it’s all pretty straightforward. (Like, who among us doesn’t have a list of things to do at work? We all do! I’m not special.) So let’s look at this week and the way it broke down.

Monday

I’m set to record an episode of my podcast, Nobody Cares (Except For Me), downtown at 10:30 a.m., which means I’ve got to be out the door by about 8:30 a.m. to avoid traffic and to ensure there’s enough time to pick up coffee. Clearly, I fail. So after doing the aforementioned Starbucks run (I know what I’m about), I meet my producer and my guest at eOne and we record until about noon.

The thing is, I am late again. I don’t know how to stop talking (and I get to collaborate with fun people so I never will), so by 12:30 p.m. I’m heading out to meet a friend for lunch—which was supposed to start at 12:30, so I’m there by 1. We wrap at 3:30, and I’m back in Cambridge by dinnertime to write a piece I need in by end of day. I do it (in by 8, but that’s fine), and my reward is Sharp Objects, which scares me to no end and I regret watching it immediately.

Tuesday

Congratulations to all of us, it’s a standard-ish work-day. I’m caffeinated and typing by 10 (I have an essay to write by 11), and the rest of my day is dedicated to emailing and pitching until I have to leave for another podcast recording at 4:30. I hop in the car at 3-ish and by 4:45 I’m at eOne where I stay until I meet a friend for dinner at 5:45. We’re both late, and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday

Wimbledon. After getting coffee and donuts (for myself, a true hero), I’m at my computer by 10 so I can watch Roger Federer win the semi-finals. He loses, so I mourn and cheer for Milos. He also loses, and all of it distracted me to the point of handing a piece in about an hour late. I am the worst, and because my mental narrative is always “you don’t do enough,” I pitch to more editors, answer more emails, and panic that I’m not doing as much as I possibly can.

I still make it downtown for dinner by 6:30 though, and have You Must Remember This to thank for a stress-free drive.

Thursday

Serena Williams won the Wimbledon semi-finals! This matters to me more than anything, but I tell myself that Serena Williams didn’t become the best by not doing her work. So I do mine: I write an essay, I catch up on emails, I write another essay, and then I begin to panic because I have to be downtown for 7, and I don’t know if I’ll get the last piece finished within the hour. Then, I tell myself to get a grip and 60 minutes is plenty of time. I’ll be in the car by 5:15 and I’ll have a new episode of My Favorite Murder to listen to. I am aware that I sound delusional.

Friday

And here’s where I think I can split time: I have a meeting at ECW about my book Nobody Cares (out on September 18!) at 10:30/11, which means I should be in the car by 8:30/9. Despite not being a morning person, I try to convince myself that I’ll get up with plenty of time to send the pitches I need in tomorrow as if I can’t wrap up any unfinished work tonight.

So I look at the clock now—3:52 p.m.on Thursday afternoon—and tell myself that I’ve got it. I can do this, I can do everything, I can do all of it. It’s fine! It’s all fine! And I should do more. I’m not doing enough. What does next week look like? Busy, but light. I could fit more in. I’ll add more pitches to the to-do list today. Maybe it’s the three iced teas talking, but I can handle this. I can handle all of it.

I just need to stop watching this episode of The Crown.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
How to Use Professional Jealousy to Figure Out What You *Really* Want
#HowIMadeIt: How Anne T. Donahue Became a Writer
Even Unf-ckwithable Women Need Help Sometimes

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