Birthday Gift

It’s my birthday today. I’m now very many years old. 🙂 But I have come by a lot of (kind of one-sided but still) wisdom in my dotage, and as a birthday gift (to me rather than to my readers, to be honest), I want to share it. The best gift for me is to be able to dispense advice to people who haven’t asked for it, so bear with me.

The advice is for those of us who work from home. Working from home is hard, and it turns many people crabby and miserable because they end up feeling like they are at work all the time without getting much done. Feelings of guilt and a sensation that one lacks productivity are ubiquitous. So how to be super effective while working from home? Take this advice from somebody who wrote a book and 3 articles while managing a high-risk pregnancy (that would be me) from home.

To be effective, work at home should be structured to look as similar to work at the office as possible. Set up work hours that always happen at the same time and inform everybody – in as strong a manner as possible! – that between x and x hours on XXXXX days you are at work. Memorize the phrase, “No, I can’t run this errand / hang out / talk / make these phone calls for you / do anybody a teensy favor BECAUSE I’M AT WORK” and repeat them like a mantra. Prepare to repeat the sentence, “So do you know how you are at work every day between 9 and 5? Guess what? SO AM I!!!” many times.

Everything that has to be done every day should be planned in as detailed a way as possible in advance. This summer, I have to finish an article, write a chapter for an edited volume, write another article, write an MLA talk, and write a grant application. I have calculated the number of words this will entail in total. Then I have divided them by the number of working days I will have this summer. Now I know exactly what I will write every day in summer and at what time of the day. Instead of a vague “I have to work on my research”, I now have “I need to write 400 words on Russian immigrants and criminality on May 4th.”

My work at home ends at 3 pm, after which I don’t do any work, don’t look at work emails, don’t think about work, and concentrate on having summer fun. I also have 2 weeks in May and 2 weeks in July when I will not be working because I’ve scheduled them as vacation time.

Many people will balk at the idea of being so structured that they have planned in advance where they will be at 2 pm on August 10. But to me it’s comforting, which is why I work very well from home.

And the most important thing: lists of things to do are not the way to go. Forget lists and start thinking numbers instead. How many work days can you realistically have each month? How many words can you realistically write each day if the kids refuse to sleep, the weather is nuts, the spouse chooses this time to become high-maintenance, the best friend has a crisis, there is an unexpected large expense, and as a result you feel completely exhausted every day of the summer? If you don’t know, conduct an experiment. Choose a very bad day and sit down to write to see how many words you have been able to squeeze out. (For people who are not in the writing professions, it will be phone calls or whatever their measure of productivity is.)

Counting is fun, I promise. Happy Birthday to me and happy summer working to all of us.


29 thoughts on “Birthday Gift”

  1. Happy birthday!
    This is excellent advice. Breaking stuff up into small and non-terrifying bites is a great strategy for getting things done. I have read from several productive writers that the first thing in the morning is sit down and don’t get up until they churn out the number of words they have set out to write (usually it’s 2k or thereabouts for fiction writers).


  2. Happy birthday! I hope you’re getting a lot of work done. 🙂

    I really like this advice about working from home. I have a VERY hard time working from home, but if I’m more structured about it, then maybe I’ll get more accomplished. I really love the idea of trying to concentrate on numbers, rather than tasks. If I wrote 500 words a day — which is really not much — I’d have 35000 words by the end of summer, taking weekends off. That’s a LOT of writing. I often write lots more at a stretch when I have time to actually sit down and do it, which only really happens in the summer.

    So, now I have a goal. 500 words a day. Thanks! It’s like you gave ME a birthday present. 🙂


    1. Thank you! You are a wonderful and talented person and I hope you get to a place in your career as a writer very soon where you can send the 4/4 teaching schedule to hell. I think it’s very possible.


  3. Happy Birthday! I hope your six hours of teaching still bring you some fun and that your evening at home if filled with family joy. 🙂

    I completely agree with your “work at home” advice. I try something similar. (But I’m not nearly as fast as you!). Still, small manageable chunks is the way to get things accomplished. My personal goal is one page a day or 24 lines of prose in a standard double spaced Word document. It’s not a lot. But it does add up if you keep at it.

    I would also add to your advice: shower, dry your hair, put on make up (if you are a makeup wearer), wear decent clothes. You don’t have to necessarily go “full out”. (I don’t wear dresses, heels, and tights as I do when I go to school for instance.) But not showering and staying in grubby clothes only encouraged non-productivity.


    1. Thank you! I’m very happy finally to meet somebody who is politically close to me. This is a very unusual sensation in my life. I’m even ready to give up Bernie for that. 🙂


      1. I feel very alone in my own political life too; I’d assumed there were all kinds of things we all agreed on then found out it was just me. Irl I mostly know very, very out of touch Bernie people, many of who are very nasty to anyone who disagrees with them on anything, and people who aren’t politically involved. I used to feel a lot of commonality with a group of Hillary supporters I found online, but I’m beginning to grow apart from them. Even the few friends I enjoy discussing politics with aren’t politically close to me. I do have one friend I feel politically close to (I even converted her to Bernie hate!) Apart from that it’s pretty much just my parents, although we don’t discuss politics that much. I probably need more older friends.

        One thing I don’t think I’ve found elsewhere is a Democrat who isn’t strongly anti-intervention. I think the Iraq War has understandably turned people into isolationists. I’m fine with differing views, what I’m tired of is people acting like Obama is a hawkish, cold blooded killer.


        1. “One thing I don’t think I’ve found elsewhere is a Democrat who isn’t strongly anti-intervention.”

          • Now you have. 🙂 Although I’m not yet a registered Democrat. I believe that isolationism is not an intellectually sustainable framework. There is no chance that an enormous country with a huge military will not exercise its military might ever, no matter what happens. This is not a realistic goal. Which is why I supported Obama using drones instead of engaging in full-scale invasions. Because the choice was never between drones or complete non-intervention. The choice was between drones and ground troops / bombings.


  4. Happy birthday!

    I couldn’t quite put this into words last year, but your blog helped me get out of a really dark place, and I’m very grateful.

    It’s cheesy and technically impossible to do otherwise, but keep being you.


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