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Writers, Pay Yourself First


During my time as an author, I’ve come to discover something pretty cool.

Writers have a super power: we’re excellent jugglers.

The vast majority of us have at least one other thing we’re juggling alongside our writing time: family, full or part-time work, other hobbies and skills, or even multiple writing projects at once. We’re good at this juggling, even if it’s incredibly challenging at times. I’d even go so far as to say we LIKE being that busy. The demands on our time keep the brain on full-throttle and this can be great for creative endeavors.

Among friends and colleagues, I’m notorious for having trouble saying “no” to things and I have to constantly remind myself of this mantra: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I often get myself into a pickle because I tackle a project with gusto and don’t know how to do “just enough”. I want to nail it. Really bring home a win, even if it means spending way more time on something than I envisioned or than I need to. Often, though, I’m enjoying myself…until I realize I’m not. I’ve taken on too much, again. Next comes the stress, the lack of sleep, and the irritability or resentment.

After watching me go through this during one particularly brutal meltdown, my husband sat me down and gave me a talking to, and one thing he said really stuck with me, even now, years later.  I keep coming back to it. His advice, amazingly, set me free in many ways. It helped me manage the load better and taught me how to listen to my own needs before bending over backwards to help others. I knew I had to share it with you all here at WU because we could all use some writerly hacks, amiright? Yet his golden piece of wisdom is so simple:

Pay yourself first.

This is a financial concept in which you deposit money into your savings accounts first, and divide the rest between bills and daily expenses so that down the road, you’re covered.  You’ve made solid plans to take care of yourself. Yet, this concept can be applied to anything that has a limited supply. In the writer’s case, the limited supply is energy, inspiration, and time. (We’re always running short on time, aren’t we?) There’s only so much to go around in the twelve-hour period that we work each day. How you use that time is the difference between feeling satisfied, and feeling not only depleted but defeated. Let’s look at what “paying yourself first” looks like for writers.

If you work a full-time job and/or have young children at home, your writing time will likely be significantly reduced. In this instance, paying yourself first means before you do the laundry or grocery shopping, etc, you pencil in a slot of time to write FIRST. The other things can come after it, when your brain is too tired to create and produce. If that means other chores and demands need to happen the next day, so be it, and all the better, really. Very few things must be done IN THAT MOMENT. Be honest about your schedule and be strict about your writing time. You will feel so much more satisfied having written a few words during that 30 minutes or during that 2-hour time block that you had than by putting dirty clothes in the washer.

If you’re working on more than one project, spend time FIRST on the item that means the most to you. Reach your word count goal before you turn to the articles you need to write, the other project in the editing stages, or the promotional duties (newsletters, social media, etc). If you only have one hour to devote to this project per day, that’s great. An hour is A LOT of time. When our time is limited, we’re often more productive anyway, and our focus is more intense, because we know we need to seize the time, or lose it. You’ll probably surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish. Paying yourself first by working on the project you love and are most excited about will set the tone for the rest of the day. Everything else will feel like gravy.

Deadlines can wreak havoc on our boundaries. Paying yourself first still applies here, it just might mean you have less time to do each of the tasks you’d like to accomplish. That’s okay! Some is better than none. Touching the ball counts. Do a little of the thing you’d most like to do and move on to the deadline work after it. Otherwise, deadline stress can take over completely, and if you’re anything like me, you wind up abandoning everything else to KEEP GOING. At the end of the day, though, I’m still less satisfied than if I’d spent a little time on the project (or whatever it is) I most wanted to spend my time on, the thing that’s bringing me joy at the moment.

Listen to your body: If you’ve been slaving away and you’re exhausted or burned out and achy, or you’re gaining weight, paying yourself first means resting or rejuvenating with sleep, exercise, or even doing something fun for a change. You can’t be productive on the page—or in life— very effectively if you ignore what your body needs.

I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again—I’m an over-achiever, what can I say. But the good news is, I’ve gotten better at paying myself first. When things are getting rough or I’m stressed to the max, I take some deep breaths. Write a list. Think about what would give me the most joy, and what paying myself first would look like in that instance. It helps me cope. It helps me to organize my time well. It helps me to do my best. What more can I ask for then that?


Do you play these games with yourself—choosing what to work on first or figuring out how to carve up your time to include more writing? How do you cope? What does “paying yourself first” look like for you?

About Heather Webb [1]

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped many writers sign with agents and go on to sell at market. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.