A day in the life of a newsletter writer
What I actually do all day
Something I spend a lot of time wondering about people is: “what do you do all day?” Sure, we work, but what does that actually entail? And for people like me who do hard-to-explain jobs, I think it can seem even more amorphous.
So it’ll come as no surprise that I love reading about people’s schedules. And yet, I realised, I’ve never written about my own. As a freelancer, I wear many hats; one of them being “newsletter writer”. So here’s a day in my life when I’m working on my newsletter:
6.30-7.00 AM: Wake up
I typically wake up between 6.30 and 7.00 am, usually without an alarm. A couple of years ago, I started putting my phone in a different room at night in order to stop myself from scrolling first thing. Lately, I’ve relaxed that a bit because I like doing the Wordle in bed when I wake up. That strict rule must have worked because I do manage to do the puzzle without getting sucked into any newsfeeds.
Then I get up, let the dogs out (well, only Jack; Dolly is still fast asleep), make some herbal tea and try to force myself to empty the dishwasher. The way some people feel about making their beds in the morning is how I feel about emptying the dishwasher: it will be a better day if it starts with a clean kitchen. Then I’ll shower and get ready for the day.
(If you’re wondering how I wake up without an alarm/keep my phone in a different room, I mostly put it down to buying a mock-sunlight alarm. I bought one by Philips about 7 years ago and slowly trained myself to get up early, without snoozing. Eventually, I started waking up before it went off and then mostly phased it out altogether, bar the few occasions when I really have to make sure I’m awake by a certain time).
8.00 AM: Writers’ Hour
At 8.00 AM I log into Writers’ Hour, a virtual writing session. You sit on a Zoom with about 200 writers around the world and just write. Every time I do it, my mind is blown by how well it works. I first developed the habit of starting my day with Writers’ Hour when I was writing my book. I took a long break but I’m now back as a regular again. In fact, I’m writing this during a Writers’ Hour right now. (Writers’ Hour is free for anyone to attend but I’m a paying member).
9.00 AM: Breakfast
I’m not going to lie, I usually feel pretty smug that it’s 9.00 AM and I’ve already done a solid hour’s worth of work. I take the dogs for a walk before breakfast. I usually have porridge with a high ratio of toppings to oats because breakfast is my favourite meal of the day.
10.00 AM: Deep work
I usually get the bulk of my work done before lunch. I’m a devotee of the computer science professor Cal Newport’s “deep work” theory. Newport defines deep work as the “ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. And “shallow work”, by contrast, is logistical-style work that you usually do while distracted (e.g. back and forth emails about scheduling a pointless meeting while your Slack is pinging away).
On days when I’m working on my newsletter, deep work = writing of the newsletter (duh). I rely on my old faithful to get this done: the Pomodoro Technique. You set a timer and work in chunks. However, rather than use an actual timer, I listen to ASMR YouTube channels that play ambient sounds at timed intervals and then switch up the music for the break. My current favourite is the Hogwarts Express.
1.00 PM: Lunch
If breakfast has to be delicious, lunch has to be hot. I just don’t like cold food; I think salads are a waste of time and I’m not much of a fan of sandwiches, either. Some of my go-to’s are ratatouille, any kind of veggie stew really, or a baked sweet potato with tuna. If I’m in a rush, I’ll make scrambled eggs on toast. Honestly, being able to eat hot food at lunchtime is one of my most cherished aspects of working from home.
My afternoons are where things start to unravel. The reason I decided not to keep an actual diary of one of my workdays is that I knew I’d perform for it and it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of my real working life. While my mornings look pretty much the same whatever I’m working on, my afternoons are really varied. I do some combination of the following:
I usually don’t have enough in the tank to do any more writing in the afternoon, but if I have a deadline or just haven’t finished what I needed in the morning, I will. Otherwise, any work I do in the afternoon tends to be the stuff that’s somewhere between deep and shallow work: let’s call it waist-deep admin. So I'll be doing some combination of planning out the newsletter’s content calendar; finance bits; replying to comments; coming up with new ideas; solving any issues that crop up, and any other non-newsletter work bits I have on my plate. I also try to keep any calls I have to the afternoon.
I have a complicated relationship with email. On the one hand, writing emails is one of my superpowers. But on the other, my inbox gives me inordinate anxiety. My strategy right now is terrible. I basically just keep an eye on my inbox and if something important comes in, I reply but otherwise, I leave things to languish and wait for someone to nudge me. I tell myself this approach is driven by my desire to be known as being good at my job, rather than at email, but really it just leaves me feeling stressed. Despite not actually sending or receiving that many emails, I somehow find my thoughts utterly consumed by my inbox.
I’m a morning person who has a lot of mental energy first thing, but I don’t have that much physical energy. I need two meals in me before I can exercise. So when I’m on top of my game, the ideal way to deal with my mid-afternoon slump is by going to the gym. I do a simple workout that I could honestly just do at home, but I find the ritual of leaving the house and walking to the gym clears the cobwebs.
It would be remiss of me to pretend that every day is perfect, far from it. I’m regularly overtaken by any combination of self-doubt, frustration or overwhelm. Sometimes I’m stressed out by my workload, other times I’m simply despairing at the state of the media industry. I also procrastinate – a lot. I’m often re-arranging my office or just sending voice notes to Tiffany Philippou, who, also being self-employed as she is, responds in kind.
I used to spend a lot of time on social media, but that’s become less and less frequent. Once in a while, I scan job sites for full-time positions and very occasionally, I even start filling in the application. My point is, at some point in my day, no matter how well organised I am, I too feel the weight of working in a broken ecosystem.
5.00 PM: Clock off
I’m usually done with work by 5.00 PM. Even though I rally against long hours and presenteeism, I’m weirdly embarrassed to cop to that in public. In fact, when I first had the idea of writing up my work diary, I thought it would be easy. I didn’t think it would bring up a host of weird feelings and thoughts, like “will people think I’m lazy?”
In truth, I stop working at 5.00 PM for two simple and connected reasons: I get a lot done, and I can. Newport reckons that the upper limit of deep work is four hours per day and I’m inclined to agree. Over the years I’ve been freelance I’ve continued to reduce the bloat in my schedule and carve out space to actually get my work within a reasonable timeframe. So when it gets to 5.00 PM, my tired because I’ve done a lot, but yet still feel guilty walking away from my desk.
Were it not for a dog’s snout appearing at my office door every day around 5.00 PM, I probably would stay sat in front of the computer. Taking the dogs out straight after work is a really nice way to bookend the day. I think of it kind of like a virtual commute – I leave my house, which was the office and I come back to it as the home.
I make dinner and then hang with my partner and the dogs. We either watch TV, play a board game, or occasionally go to the local pub. Now that it’s getting warmer, I do a bit of gardening while it’s still light out. I keep it super low-key on weekday evenings. I’m usually in bed by 10.00 PM, ideally earlier. I’ll read for a bit before falling asleep.
And there you go – that’s what I do all day!