As I mentioned in my birthday column, I received a question recently from a reader that asked, “What does your day look like? What is a day in the life of Bullish actually like?”
I was putting on my pinstripe catsuit and preparing to do battle with my enemies when this also came in:
Jen, I really admire your energy and ability to be so prolific and efficient! I also really admire your no-holds-barred attitude. Any advice on how to maintain high energy levels and be productive on a daily (okay, mostly daily) basis?
Hi there, and thanks for the questions! I am happy to oblige. So, here’s how I do what I do, and how some other successful ladies I polled make things happen.
(For those of you new to Bullish, what I do is pretty much run Bullish and the Bullish Conference, write educational books and teach test prep classes, orchestrate adult spelling bees, and try to help others remake their lives and careers to their liking. Oh, and I occasionally hold male beauty pageants in bars, because OMG I can.)
I get up around 8:30 and head straight to my espresso machine.
I try to ignore email, or even ignore the computer entirely, until I have a plan in place and a sense of focus. Sometimes, I put the laptop in a cabinet at night to remind myself only to use the computer deliberately, rather than letting it commandeer my day.
I write and work on various projects until I need a break, at which point I go work out, come back, shower, make more coffee. I try not to waste good thinking-time on things like exercise or physically getting ready to go out; if I can lift weights and shower when my brain is half-dead, then I’m not wasting prime mental performance hours on them. (This is yet another reason I’m against offices and commuting.)
My phone ringer has been off for years. No one gets to ring a bell in my fucking house when they want to talk to me. I don’t have nuclear launch codes; the urgent is rarely that urgent; anyone who dies will still be dead when I check my voicemail. I am frequently inaccessible.
I usually leave around 3 to tutor someone, or sometimes they come to me (I have a cafe-sized dining room table that I remove the candlesticks from and turn sideways, and it’s the tutoring center, complete with TI-73 and a box of blank flashcards just waiting to be filled with knowledge). I usually teach class from 6:30 to 9:30pm.
I find that my brain isn’t that useful once I get home at 10:15pm. I have a drink, and at some point switch to reading things on the Internet like everyone else, but then I try to switch to reading actual (paper!) books, because bright lights are bad for you at night.
I recently discovered some excellent free software that adjusts the light coming from your monitor to match the time of day — so, in the evening, your screen takes on a rosy glow!
Because my main profession (teaching the GMAT) requires a great deal of brainpower, I really believe in sleep. Sleep-deprived people perform as badly as drunk people on standardized tests. People sleep best in very dark, relatively chilly rooms, with heavy blankets, and especially their feet kept very warm. Lately, I am into turning all the lights down half an hour before bed and listening to Brian Eno.
A Gentlewomanly Workspace
In Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE, I shared a photo of the outdoor desk on my 25th-floor balcony. (A reader, in response, sent a picture of the outdoor desk he set up on his deck in Vermont! It had a beach umbrella jury-rigged into the side of a lawn chair.)
I’ve also recently set up a standing desk in my apartment. It was actually a cabinet I’d always had up against the wall; I cleared all the books from the top and discovered that it was the perfect height. Thus, I didn’t actually replace my regular desk, but rather have many options. When I get tired, I just move, with the computer, to the couch or back to the regular desk — however, since I keep the power supply plugged in behind the standing desk, I can only sit and work as long as my battery supply lasts, which is an hour and a half at best.
It also pleases my retro sensibilities to have a beautiful espresso-wood desk WITH NO COMPUTER ON IT. It’s a place for actual thinking!
I read somewhere that some kind of spine doctor said, “The best position is the next position.” (I’ll bet that guy’s a really annoying lay.)
Here’s a post about standing desks. I did find, after setting one up, that my heel-bones started to hurt. One will generally want to wear shoes, or stand on some kind of padding. But my back feels great, my calves feel firmer, and — although we now live in a world in which virtually none of us make physical objects for a living and thus we all live in a sort of ennui of rushing to produce intangibles — it’s good to have a satisfying feeling of physical tiredness by the end of the day.
Overall, in case I didn’t make this clear: I typically spend about seven hours a day not seeing or speaking to anyone, which is how I’m able to form meaningful thoughts and string them together in useful ways.
I believe in concentration, solitude, and going into The Cave to build expertise and gain clarity.
Information is now free, and there is so much of it; clarity is actually very expensive in terms of the effort it takes to obtain. I will do anything for it.
Keeping Up the Energy: Automate and Move Forward
I definitely don’t feel jazzed up and super full of energy all day long — that’s just not sustainable for long periods of time. It’s more that I’ve just cut a lot of crap out of my life. I don’t have TV, I haven’t played a video game since I was 8, and my couch is deliberately not very cozy. Just like I wouldn’t put a candy dish on my coffee table, there’s no remote control that suddenly distracts me from what I am in this world to do. The choices are 1) sleep in bed, or 2) have some coffee and remake the world to my liking.
I’m also able to get more done by automating the less important parts of life.
I pick one healthy meal and make the same thing over and over for a couple of weeks until I get tired of it and switch it up (right now, egg whites with black beans and peppers). Or I make a huge cassoulet or pot of soup and just mindlessly eat it for days until it’s gone.
I would never, ever in a million years waste an entire day on “errands.” I can’t understand people who do. I can order everything on the Internet and save an entire day in exchange for modest shipping fees. I love Freshdirect. I always buy things in bulk even if there’s no discount for doing so, because it saves my time (and also, sometimes, shipping fees). I own two years’ worth of trash bags. I buy eye makeup remover in cases, from a beauty supply store. These things seem trivial, but they add up. They keep you from getting bogged down in the basics, just trying to do all the things.
Regular deadlines keep me on a writing schedule (I make a point to plan what I’m going to write the night before, and then sleep on it), and I add a lot of other deadlines to my calendar to make sure I keep producing. I haven’t yet figured out the holy grail for doing big projects that need to be scheduled in many small modules, but I do manage to slam out all kinds of day-length projects.
I think it’s important not to be crippled by perfectionism. Sometimes I feel stuck, and I say, “Okay, this book chapter’s going to suck, but I’ll just write something that sucks and then try to fix it up if I can.” When it’s done, though, it almost never actually sucks (well, at least I think so). And if it did suck, well, a first draft is way better than no draft (and that’s true for lots of things other than writing).
I also outsource a few things. My web designer works from Argentina. I am really happy when other people are working for me as I sleep.
Time Management is Like Dieting
Time management is like dieting in that “diets” don’t generally work, whereas lifestyle changes absolutely do. Willpower is limited. You can’t go maxxing out all your willpower on something as basic as “not putting fattening food in your body.” Not eating fattening things if you are already unhappy about excess body fat — that’s some really basic shit there. If you spend all your willpower on that, what do you have left for your career, relationships, altruistic impulses, creative life, and will-to-power?
You need to automate, by which I mean: Remove unworthwhile foods and unworthwhile uses of time from your life and simply never give them another thought. They are unworthy of you. You then have willpower for other things.
You know what I never buy? Loaves of bread. I mean, I am deeply into European food and gentlewomanly dining, and I do eat bread in restaurants. But bread is just empty carbs. (Even the kind that says “whole grain” — I mean, it was whole, until it was ground up and baked into bread. Actual whole grains look like, for instance, a bowl of barley.) The kind of bread that you buy at the grocery store that’s sliced and was not baked this morning? It is neither good for you nor delicious. I would never buy that shit.
As I mentioned, I do own an excellent espresso machine, and FreshDirect sells wine and beer by the case, as well as ready-to-cook meals and many varieties of salmon and berries (apparently, lean people with good skin eat almost exactly like bears).
When Life Gets You Down
Sometimes I feel tired, stupid, or just plain terrible, just like everyone else. Several months ago, I wrote in Bullish Life: How To Respond To Disappointment With Awesomeness and Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It and a few other columns on less-than-rosy topics. Sure, around then, I broke up with my boyfriend of two years (kind of a big deal when you’re 32) and also had to spend nearly $4,000 on hearing aids (I wear them for work).
But, if you’ve been subject to an emotional beatdown, you can easily say, “Okay, I’m not going to do any of these big-thinking tasks right now, so what’s on the I’m-stupid-right-now list?” And then I clean the bathtub and print and collate worksheets for my students and follow back a bunch of people who followed me on Twitter and a bunch of other stuff that would bore the living shit out of me if I were on top of my game. I called all my credit card companies and politely asked for higher credit limits, which worked, thus causing my credit score to go up five points in a month. When you’re emotionally numb is a great time to wait on hold. (I gave similar advice in Bullish Life: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Do Not Touch the Phone When You’re Drunk!)
Life usually hands you less than ideal circumstances, so it’s important to move forward under duress. You will usually be under some kind of duress! You don’t need to feel guilty about it; it’s the human condition. Some not-very-glamorous scheduling techniques, as above, can keep the engine running when life has given you the proverbial lemons (or cramps, or hangovers, or breakups, or pink slips).
How Other Gentlewomen Make It Happen
I also asked a couple of successful lady-friends about the most important thing they do to get it all done with aplomb. From artist and arts entrepreneur Molly Crabapple.
Every morning I write a highly detailed to do list. I have an insane old-school taskmaster notebook, subdivided by yearly goals which are broken into monthly projects, and then those broken up into daily lists. Stuff on the to-do list might be “work on illustration of Porphyria’s Lover, with Porphyria strangling herself with own hair” (this was later a highly successful print), or “research comics magazines in Paris” or “do concept art for book.” The to-do list is too long to ever be finished, which is kind of the joy. I also drink lots of coffee.
For more on never-ending to-do lists, see Bullish: How to Be a Productivity Unicorn.
From author Janice Erlbaum:
Exercise four times per week. Walk everywhere, when I can, so I know how long it will take me to get places, and I avoid getting stuck on transportation. Ideally, get to appointments fifteen minutes early and use the time to write in my notebook. Read Bullish, of course.
Aw! Sweet. You know, I never engendered such controversy as when I wrote, Bullish: Boost Your Career by Never Being Late Again (“I find that late people often have no idea just how much other people hate them. The prettier the late girl, the more oblivious she often is. And we all grow less pretty with time, so growing less late would probably be a good plan.”)
Weirdly, Janice and I are both former bodybuilders; I wrote a bit about this in Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet (Take Care Of Yourself While Taking Over The World).
So, that’s more or less a day in the life of Bullish.
Surely, a bit of it is a matter of personal taste. All of my furniture must be espresso wood, and my apartment contains many precisely-folded white hand towels, because I want my apartment (which is located in a former bank) to be as much like a hotel as possible. But that’s just me. (While we’re on the topic of my aesthetic preferences, I just want to say that I was dressing like Kate Middleton before she was. Just saying.)
Oh, and I didn’t mention boys/men here much at all (see Bullish Life: 3 Romantic Mistakes That Young Women Make That Cause Weeping Among The Angels And Kittens).
If I could do the last decade over again, I’d say: waste far less time on boys until you’re looking for a life partner, and then deliberately carve serious time from your already-thriving career to find and bond with a worthy gentleman. Be so clear about what you want that 95% of men run away, making it much easier to find those who want what you do. But I’ve met very few women with the willpower to truly live this way. Perhaps women who have lost their hormones and clitorises in horrible accidents.
Finally, if you have a hard time cutting the crap from your life, try Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning For Very Smart Women. Design your far future. It will become clear that there’s no time now for things that are unworthy of the life you want.
originally published on The Gloss