I’ve never been very disciplined when it comes to work. I’m a procrastinating queen. When I was in school as a child, my mother would ask me why I waited until the last minute to do my work, and I’d say, “I work better under pressure.” That’s not really true. It’s just that I resented homework. It never took as long as teachers thought it would, and it was almost always something I’d proven I’d mastered in class. And when I became an adult, working in spaces with my own desk in cubicle farms, I grew to resent the busy work of office life. I learned to stretch an hour-long task over an 8-hour day so my coworkers wouldn’t think I was showing off and so my boss wouldn’t give me my colleagues’ tasks. I learned fairly quickly that people need you to look busy more than they want you to be efficient, and as a result, I did not become very organized about work… until I quit my last day job and started freelancing full-time. Then I had to get my ish together.
My first freelance assignment was in 2013 and in 2015, I decided I could and would freelance full-time. I was living with my sister back home in Nashville and didn’t pay rent. I didn’t have a car. I contributed in other financial and intangible ways but it was nowhere near what it would’ve been had I lived on my own, so I figured I could see if the writing career I’d wanted since I was 7 years old was actually viable. And I learned very quickly that waiting until 2 hours before a 1500-word assignment was due was not the best way to do work. I stumbled a lot. Missed deadlines. Panic attacks. Executive decision paralysis. I started worrying that editors were hesitating before giving me work because, even though I might have turned in good, clickable writing, there was a significant chance it would be late.
I had to figure out the best way for me to work.
After a nice pep talk to myself and realizing how much it would pain me to have to go back to 9-5 life, I found a routine. I put due dates in my calendar a day before the actual due date. I set alarms on my phone. I figured out I worked best between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm. Instrumental, classical music in the background kept me focused.
No major electronics are allowed in my bedroom. That means no televisions and no laptops. I do not work from bed. To capture ideas and hold myself accountable, I got whiteboards and returned to physical planners. There are paper and writing utensils in each room of my apartment, except the bathroom, but I’m thinking about getting one of those shower-friendly pads because I talk to myself a lot while Dr. Bronner’s pure castile soap works its peppermint magic.
I started meeting deadlines and had fewer panic attacks. I learned I could not take on every assignment and could say no to avoid overwhelming myself and disappointing editors. I still had fumbles but for the most part, as my 40s welcomed me, I’d finally become disciplined.
And then the pandemic hit and the US went into lockdown.
As an introverted person who worked from home as a writer and podcaster, on a very surface level, my life didn’t change much… at first. The changes were sneaky. If I was not recording a podcast or talking to my mother on the phone, days would pass without me making a sound. Insomnia became a frequent visitor. Sometimes I wouldn’t fall asleep until 5am, which meant I slept later and blew my 10am-3pm work schedule to bits and pieces. My day would be spent doom-scrolling, trying to make sense of what was going on and worrying how to keep my family safe from afar, then at night, I’d start working. I brought my laptop to bed and worked through the insomnia, which made me cranky and resentful.
Most of my freelance work involves writing about pop culture so I have to stay up-to-date with whatever new show or movie is the hot topic, but I could no longer pay attention. It took me two days to work through an hour-long episode of a show I can’t even remember now, so I turned to comfort tv, watching old familiar shows and movies I’d already seen at least five times. And all this meant I couldn’t pitch anything “timely and relevant,” which cut down significantly on the income I was receiving, which led to increased financial stress, which led to depressive spirals, and all my hard work over the last few years of establishing a good working, disciplined routine crumbled.
In the fall of 2020, my mother was hospitalized with the virus and I worried myself in such a state, my therapist had to prescribe Xanax for my panic attacks. How could I think about finishing a book, watching the latest streaming show, pitching an article about fictional characters when my very real life was falling apart? I couldn’t. I was angry, worried, stressed, and I could barely meet any of the deadlines I had, but I spoke up and communicated to my editors: “I am having a difficult time.” And they understood and gave me as much wiggle room as they could.
My mother recovered. I went home for Thanksgiving, perhaps a controversial decision but I had to see her. Once I felt good about her progress, it felt like I could get my life and my routine back on track. I’ve had to rely on friends and family a few times, but I’m slowly working to get my discipline back and that’s been even harder than the first time around. I’m typing this article from bed, but it’s morning. I have an alarm that sounds at 10:00 pm so I can turn off the television and get ready for bed, and once I’m in bed, I use various apps, depending on my mood, to either soothe me to sleep with ocean waves or somnolent meditations. I have three morning alarms and now I have a cat, who makes sure I get out of bed and give her all the scritches she can stand.
After years of flying by the seat of my pants, and doing just enough to get by in environments I tolerated, I finally found a good work routine in a career I love, and then it was all turned upside down by a global crisis beyond my control. I’m fighting to get my life back in order and learning to stay open to doing what I need to keep going. There’s a new normal on the horizon for all of us as we recover from the past year. I feel confident in my own ability to get myself together again to create work I’m proud to share, and I know it won’t take another 40 years to get there.