Three different people have asked me in the last month about how to balance their writing, work, family, and life. Step 1: ask someone who actually knows.
I’m too busy coordinating home repairs while my spouse travels for work. New water heater this week. Broken window replaced last week.
But I realized dealing with a broken water heater is actually a perfect example of how to manage multiple areas of your life while you keep writing. Hint: it has nothing to do with balance.
Death of a Water Heater
It was 8 p.m. Wednesday night when the shrieking began upstairs. “WHY IS THE WATER FREEZING COLD!” my teen daughter screamed. She continued to yell through the end of her shower, and I went to the garage to check the breaker box.
Nothing seemed amiss. I stood in front of the gray behemoth of a water heater. No sound. No smoke. That was good, right?
I know nothing about water heaters. I live with four teenagers and two dogs who know nothing about water heaters, so I called my dad and followed his directions, removing the first element cover and finding the reset button.
Then I checked the second element cover and as soon as I cleared the panel, I could smell burnt plastic and wire. The inside of the cover was shriveled and the front of the element was melted into place. Decidedly not good.
“I don’t think we can fix it over the phone, Dad.” I made sure the breaker was off as I ended the call. By this time it was 9 p.m. and I sent a flurry of texts to see which friends wanted to let us crash their showers.
The next morning, I called the plumber and luckily, they had a crew who could come out and look at it later that day. Hooray!
But my calendar was already full—I already had every single hour promised somewhere else. Could I balance continuing to teach Thursday with taking care of the water heater? What about the writing I needed to get done? The meal I needed to prep? The son I had to pick up?
I couldn’t balance it. I can’t be in two (or three or four) locations at once.
You’ve been in similar situations—where you have to make time for an emergency. It becomes the most important thing to manage, and it always surprises me when I somehow find the time to deal with an emergency.
It forces me to practice the same thing that I need to do daily to meet my goals and create the life I want: I have to prioritize.
Writing Priorities > Balance
When people ask me about balance, I ask them about their top three priorities. Not their priorities for each separate sphere where they work and play—their top three total.
Then, I suggest they look at those three priorities next to their calendar. What do you notice? If your family is on your list of priorities, does it show on your calendar? If writing is important to you, is there space marked off for it consistently?
The truth is most of us don’t have enough time to do everything we want to do within a given week (especially when it’s interrupted by water heater installation). But we can prioritize those people and things that matter most long-term and over time we can be more satisfied, knowing we are being intentional about our time.
It’s not about balance (which I think is largely an illusion). It’s about making and meeting priorities.
The reason I avoid prioritizing is because it almost always forces me to let things go. I have to strategically abandon (or sometimes postpone) the things that aren’t in line with my biggest priorities. Many of the things I have to abandon are good things; they just aren’t BEST for me right now.
There are also things we can’t release or abandon, whether it is job or family-care related. We all have to work within the realities of our situation and season. But if we know what our most essential focus is, it can help us release those extra activities and commitments that don’t line up with our priorities.
A decade ago, we blew an engine in our family car. My husband was at sea (of course) and our four kids were aged 4–11.
The first few hours I realized we’d be without a car for a week, I made calls trying to line up carpool rides and trying to make our schedule work. It was a mess.
At my wits' end, I finally canceled everything. It opened my eyes to how many things did NOT add value to our family life. I gracefully backed out of several activities and commitments permanently that week.
Nothing worth having is going to be easy, but priorities can clear the clutter keeping you from pursuing your biggest dreams. If you want to write, you don’t need to quit your day job and take up residence in a library basement with a typewriter.
You can start by adding fifteen minutes of writing to your schedule today and doing it. Then add it again next week. Keep releasing things until you have the time you want and need to write, even if you have to perch yourself on a stool in the garage with your laptop as the plumbers work to replace your water heater. (Yes I did! Two hours writing time!)
Consistent deliberate practice over time will yield the results you are after. When you finish that first draft or make that first story sale and people ask, “How do you balance it all?” you can smile knowing that it isn’t magic. It’s priorities and perseverance that got you there.
Water Heater Lessons
My broken water heater reminded me that I can make time for things when I need to. Instead of putting off my writing, waiting for ideal conditions and space, I can recognize that there will never be enough time if I do not make it a priority in my life.
I’m releasing unrealistic expectations of myself and persevering. I hope you will too.
What are your writing priorities? What other priorities are important in your life? Let us know in the comments.
This is your chance to prioritize your writing. For the next fifteen minutes, cut out all other distractions and write. Continue your work in progress, or write a new story based on this prompt: a household emergency interrupts a busy day.
When your time is up, share your writing practice in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.