S. J. Kelley

Writing a novel while working full time (and having a family)

I did a lot of googling when I was trying to figure out how to squeeze writing a novel into my already full day. I work full time, teach part-time, and have two young boys who want me all to themselves when I get home. Most sites seem to advocate writing while the rest of the family sleeps (either getting up quite early, or staying up late), but they seem to be written by people with only one job. How could I squeeze in a full-time job, a family, and another part-time job? My schedule looked something like this:

  • 6:30 am – 7:30 am: Wake up and get ready for work
  • 7:30 am – 5:30 pm: Go to work; work; come home from work
  • 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm: Play with kids, have supper, do bedtime routine
  • 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm: Exhaustion sets in, but day is not done; do laundry; make lunches for next day; piddle around on the internet in an effort to wake up
  • 10:30 pm – 1:30 am or later: Do teaching prep after getting second wind
  • 1:30 am: Collapse in bed
The first thing I had to do was find more time… I had applied for and been offered a second part-time job which would have been great for our family financially (I’m the only breadwinner), but I really wanted to take a chance on my dream of writing a novel. Declining that position meant more time to focus on my book, and while we would have had a better life if I had taken the position, I keep telling myself that I’ll have a happier, more balanced life without three jobs…
Next, for my part-time job I decided to only teach courses that I had taught before, even if that meant not getting a teaching position. This drastically reduced the amount of prep work I had to do in the evenings. I also negotiated some flex time at my full-time job so I could do some teaching prep while still at the office.
With my work schedule as tight as I could make it, I had to figure out how little sleep I could get by on. On my old schedule I was a zombie. After I got to work I was semi-normal until about 1pm, and the rest of the day was a struggle. My kids often got the “I’m too tired” line when I got home. My evening work was inefficient and probably took twice as long as it should have. Creativity did not exist. Clearly, 5 hours of sleep a night was not enough!
After a semi-serious look into polyphasic sleep (not recommended by the way), I decided to just figure out how much sleep I actually needed. Adults typically need 6 – 10 hours of sleep, with 8 – 9 being the average (apparently those who only need 6 hours of sleep are genetically rare; see this cool article on Scientific American). I had been depriving myself of sleep all of my adult life, so I had no idea where I was on the spectrum. The solution? I started going to bed when my kids did (8:30 pm!) to see when I would naturally wake up. The first night I slept until my alarm went off — 10 hours. Not good. No problem, I told myself, Probably working off some sleep debt. But how long would it take to work off 15+ years of it?!
After a week or so of going to bed at 8:30 pm, I started to naturally wake up between 4:30 am and 5:00 am. The more I had used my brain during the day, the closer to 5:00 am I woke up, which was pretty interesting. While I was saddened to learn that I needed 8 – 8.5 hours a night, it was better than the 9 or 10 hours I was estimating based on “catch up” nights following my crazy schedule.
The benefit to getting all this sleep was that I seemed to grow 30% more brain. My thoughts weren’t in a fog anymore, and I didn’t lose time to being inefficient. So even though I was getting more sleep, I got the same amount done. Win-win!
Knowing how much sleep I needed, I had to figure out if I should be an “early to bed, early to rise” kind of person or not. This had less to do with me and more to do with the little sleepless people in my house. My oldest son (5) regularly has nightmares, so he usually comes to our bed sometime between 1 am and 4 am and stays for the remainder of the night. When I tried to get up at 4:30 am, he wanted to get up… I had to tell creative white lies to get him to stay in bed (queue guilt…). On the plus side, my most aware hours were used on the book, which was awesome. Unfortunately I couldn’t guarantee that I would get an uninterrupted 2 hours though, because my youngest son (almost 3) starts stirring around 4:30 am and needs to be settled regularly between then and 6:30 am when he gets up. My partner would normally settle him, but since I’m awake I feel I should do it (more of that guilt stuff…).
With mornings being less-than-ideal, I moved onto evenings, but encountered the same problems as when I was on my crazy schedule: my circadian rhythm has me at my sleepiest around 8:30 pm. I stare at the screen and re-read what I already have to kick my brain into gear, but I never really boot up before I have to head to bed at 10:30 pm. On the plus side, I get a guaranteed uninterrupted block of time… unless my partner wants to chat because I’ve been away all day… great for our relationship, but not so great for my book!
I’m still working out the early/late business, and flip-flop daily on which is better. Right now early is in the lead, because this evening I was exhausted and wrote this blog post instead of my book =P In the end I’ll probably end up smooshing and squishing the novel into life’s nooks and crannies, but it’s nice to think that one day I may settle into a schedule!

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