Running on Empty

In recent months, I have not only reached my peak capacity, I have exceeded it. At any given moment I can run on afterburners, but that is not sustainable. Indeed, too long and everything begins to fall apart. My level of busyness reached its climax this past weekend, and on the long drive home from New York, I decided I needed to slow down for a while.

Here is a list of just some of the things I have taken on, or been working on regularly for the last several months:

  • A big implementation project at the day-job, set to rollout the last weekend in October.
  • A presentation for Capclave
  • A novel draft
  • A novella draft
  • A short story for an anthology
  • Articles for The Daily Beast
  • An editorial for Analog
  • A technical advisor for a neighbor’s company
  • An interview on productivity for Forbes
  • The SFWA reception
  • The Little Man’s baseball team
  • Volunteering at the Little Man’s school library
  • Volunteering on the Little Man’s school’s STEM committee

I’m sure I’m leaving some things off, but you get the idea. All of this is my own fault, of course, and I take responsibility for that. It has had three negative side-effects, however, that I have been struggling with:

  1. Added stress to meet each commitment
  2. Longer recovery time from illness. This cold I’ve had is lingering, probably due to the fact that I have not been slowing down.
  3. A dramatic decrease in real productivity.

The latter might seem strange, but when I look at the data, sure enough, things are going down, not up. I suppose it depends on what you define as being productive. But think about how a multitasking computer works. The more things that are running at the same time, the slower they tend to run. Take writing for example. Here’s a look at the last 90 days of my writing:

90 days of writing
Data from

My 7-day moving average word count–which is my personal benchmark for writing–has generally hovered around 900 words/day. You can see from that orange line that there has been a downward trend. Indeed, as of this morning, my 7-day moving average is just over 500 words! That’s a pretty significant decrease. I am still writing every day (443 consecutive days and counting), but I’m not writing as much. One reason is less time because of all of the other things I am doing. Another reason is exhaustion. By the time I get to my writing each day, I am wiped out and can’t do it for long.

Another example comes from my daily activity, which is mostly walking. I try to get in between 7-10 miles of walking each day, because it is really the only exercise I get. I walk everywhere I possibly can. And I walk 3 times during the day at work just to get in the exercise. But lately, my numbers for walking are way down.

90 days of steps
Data from FitBit

The red line represents my 7-day moving average for the same period as the writing chart above. Aside from the slight downward trend, what is most striking to me is that earlier in the summer, that red line was up closer to 15,000 steps/day, as opposed to 9,000 steps per day. Again, a big reason is that I hesitate to take the time to walk when I have so much other stuff on my plate.

Recharging my batteries

On the drive home from New York, I was thinking about this and thinking about ways I could recharge my batteries, and continue to do the things I enjoy doing. I have come up with a four guidelines for myself, some of which I have already put into action.

1. Stop taking on new activities

Effective immediately, I have put a halt to new activities. I am trying to do this in such a way as to not pass up on good opportunities, but instead, delay them. I have already responded to a few requests by saying that I was overcommitted, but that I’d be happy to talk about it after the first of the year.

2. Prioritizing existing obligations

The saying goes, “if everything is top priority then nothing is top priority.” I have a lot of things that I am already committed to, but not all of them can be top priority. In the long-term, however, my existing volunteer obligations at the Little Man’s school probably need to get top billing.

3. Prioritize new opportunities

This was a tough one for me. I hate turning things down, but it’s getting to the point where I am getting two or three requests a week. As I said, I have been putting these off until next year, but I don’t want to end up in the same place. While it’s been a difficult decision, here is what I have decided to do:

  • All paid writing requests get top priority. If someone contacts me asking me to write for them, and offer payment (which is most places these days, anyway), it gets top priority where writing is concerned.
  • Unpaid writing requests will fall into the second tier. That is, if I have time, and don’t feel overwhelmed, I will accept these requests, but not in place of paid writing.

Along the same lines:

  • All paid speaking appearances get top priority. I’ve done a few of these now and they take up a lot more time than just giving the talk. There is prep work involved and that takes time away from other things.
  • All unpaid speaking appearances fall into the second tier. If I don’t have any paid requests, and I have the time available, I will try to do these.

I hate turning anything down, as I said, but I need some way of filtering and prioritizing, and this is what I’ve come up with.

4. Giving up things that take too much time

I have started to give up some activities that take too much time. I haven’t been posting on this blog as frequently as I used to, for instance. Not intentionally. It is a result of being too busy. I hope that will change. But certain things–like the regular Going Paperless series–just became too much to do every week. Giving that up, as much as I loved it, actually lightened the stress on my shoulders a bit, and I’ve felt a little better ever since.

That is my plan for trying to recharge my batteries and get back to a better level of productivity from where I am today. I’d like to see my daily writing numbers back up at the 900-1,000 words/day mark within the next 90 days. I’d also like to see my FitBit step count up in the 15,000 steps/day range within that same period of time. The combination of both of those measurements act as a kind of stress and productivity barometer for me. We’ll see if it happens.

One comment

  1. Jamie,
    It’s a hard call, but a good one. I’m trying to do the same! A full-time teaching job, two kids still at home, a lovely relationship and the second job of writing and marketing? Full life. Makes it hard to get the words out and keep your head up. Good luck and thanks again for the great example.
    My friends at work gave me a sheet of paper that says in a ridiculously large font. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have room for that on my plate!”


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