Fix Your Car

My friend Doug is a mechanic. Yet—and with a touch of irony—he drives a clunker. The muffler rattles. The brakes squeak. The driver’s window doesn’t roll down. And all the while, he recites his favorite mantra, teetering between modesty and defeat: “The mechanic’s car gets fixed last.”

He has a point.

As a mechanic, Doug serves his community selflessly and without complaint. He works twelve-hour days, and when he comes home, he is physically exhausted, sore, and smeared in grease. On his days off, he runs to the bank, buys groceries, cleans the house, and performs many other mundane tasks. Even when he has time off, he might tinker with the muffler or replace the brake pads, but the driver’s window will have to wait for another day.

Physical demands aside, teachers too are mechanics. From eight-to-three they teach and plan and chaperone. After school, they coach and tutor and attend meetings. On the weekends, they sell concessions and attend plays and judge science projects. They are selfless. They are tired. And they will get to their own to-do list later.

During my ten-year career as an English teacher, I have tried, without success, to publish a novel. I pushed my manuscripts aside, stuffed them in drawers, hid them in desktop folders, and told myself I will get to them when I finish grading these papers or when things slow down or my favorite excuse: next summer. Inevitably, whenever I had free time, I had to attend to the minutia of Life, and my manuscripts were lucky if they saw a second draft.

I was fixing other people’s cars. And in doing so, I was neglecting my own. If I ever wanted to get that book done, something had to change. So, I took small steps in my daily life, which in turn helped me prioritize and make time for my other ambitions.

If you are like me and have a personal goal that conflicts with your 9-5—be it run a marathon, finish grad school, or write a book—I hope you find these tips valuable, and I encourage you to adopt them into your own routine.

Wake up early. I mean early.

Here is rough timeline of my day-to-day early in my career:

6:00am – Wake up
6:00 – 8:00 Tweak lesson plan, drive to school
8:00 – 4:00 Teach, attend meetings, lesson plan
4:00 – 9:00 Drive home, grade papers, respond to emails
9:00 – 10:00 Unwind, if possible

It was absurd to think I could write after my workday. I spent last twelve hours a day reading, editing, and critiquing. The last thing I wanted to do was write, even if it was for myself. But if writing after work was out of the question, what about before work?

Instead of waking up at 6:00, I changed my alarm to 4:00 AM. Then for two hours, I forced myself to write before I started my workday. I found the mornings to be quiet, relaxing, and with a bit of coffee, very productive. During my new routine, I was able to write between 1,000 and 2,000 words each day, and in less than three months I had completed a first draft of my first novel, which clocked in at 90,000 words. And all it took was waking up a bit earlier.

The weekends though, were difficult. It was too convenient to sleep in after a long week. It felt good to hit the snooze button, but on Monday morning, when my alarm chimed at 4:00, I struggled to get back on cycle. The only solution was to wake up 4:00 every day, without exception. Stay on rhythm and never break. Summer vacation? 4:00. Sinus infection? 4:00. New Year’s Day? Maybe 4:15. Just this once. My body is so accustomed to rising early, that most days I get up without the alarm and am pouring my first cup of coffee by 3:45.

Maintaining this rhythm and never deviating from it has made all the difference. In the last six years, I’ve drafted seven novels, the shortest of which is around 75,000 words. My latest endeavor, a sci-fi trilogy—each book around 84,000 words—is now represented by Trident Media Group.

Waking earlier may seem impossible for some. We are creatures who love the snooze button. On cold winter mornings when the blankets are warm, ripping our bodies out of bed is nothing less than painful. Here’s a tip: I keep my phone on the other side of the bedroom. When my alarm goes off, I must get out of bed, trudge across the room, and silence it. By that time, I say to myself: “Well, I’m already up. I guess I’ll start my day.” Trust me, it works.

Create a Work Space.

Whenever I worked from home, I always struggled to stay on task. My home offers far too many distractions, too many opportunities to put it off until later. For example, it took a great effort to grade essays while sitting on the couch. I was always tempted to watch TV or lean back and put my feet up. Those essays didn’t stand a chance. But, let’s say, by some miracle, I graded them while on the couch. When I finished, I could not relax. My mind was still focused on work. I was confusing my brain with what the couch meant. Did sitting on the couch mean it was time to get things done or time to relax and unwind?

Our brains, on a subconscious level, associate places with activities. Lay in bed, you’ll get tired. Stand in the kitchen, you’ll get hungry. Considering this, I created two distinctive spaces in my house: an area to write and an area to relax. I bought a modest desk and converted our spare bedroom into an office. When I sat at my desk, I conditioned myself to avoid scrolling my phone, eating my lunch, or reading for leisure. My desk—my workspace—became sacred. If I needed a break, I stood up, walked away, and completed that task elsewhere. And, just like getting up at 4:00, my brain became so accustomed to it, that when I sit down at my desk now, I know it’s time to get to work.

Set Goals. Look for Patterns.

My goal is to finish a manuscript draft every ten weeks. That breaks down to 150 pages a month or roughly five pages a day. To track my progress, I have a monthly calendar hanging above my desk. Each day I scribble my page count, reaffirm my goal, and above all, I look for patterns.

And if one pattern has ever come to light, it is this: Thursdays are awful for writing. Week after week, year after year, Thursdays have always been impossible. Perhaps it’s because Thursday is near the end of the week and I’m running on fumes. Perhaps it’s because I always work late on Wednesdays and I’m still recovering the next morning (Looking at my calendar right now, I have only hit my target of five pages a day six of the last ten weeks). Whatever the reason, knowing I struggle on Thursdays helps me plan for that lull and work harder on other days of the week.

Create Hard Deadlines.

During the height of COVID, I taught English full time from home. I also worked as a tutor two or three times a week, and dammit, I was still trying to finish that book. Most often, I would start my day at 4:00 in the morning and not shut down my computer until 8:00 at night. Even now, after I’ve returned to the classroom, and I don’t tutor as often, I still find myself spending every waking hour immersed in work. In the last year though, I set the following boundaries for myself, and only under the rarest circumstances, do I break them:

  1. All work stops at 6:00 PM. This includes all writing, revising, shop-talk, emails, texts conversations with coworkers. All work. Period. From 6:00 PM on, I play board games with my wife, take a walk, or fill that time with my other hobbies.
  2. The weekends belong to me. From 6:00 PM Friday until 7:00 AM Monday, I avoid all schoolwork. I still work on my manuscript, but I don’t email parents. I don’t grade papers. I don’t schedule meetings. I give my body and mind the rest it needs.
  3. I embrace mental health days. Once every six weeks or so, I take a mental health day. I turn off my computer. I take a walk in the woods. I eat lunch at my favorite restaurant. I completely disconnect, refocus, and recharge. Do I still write on mental health days? Of course. Sometimes that’s all I do. But you’ll never find me sending a work email or sitting on a Zoom call.

Connect with a Community.

Writing is a lonely profession. Even now, drafting this post, I am withdrawn from my friends. I am sitting alone at my desk. I am quietly tugging at my own thoughts. When I receive another rejection letter, I will privately squirrel it away. It is only when a piece I’ve written is accepted and published will any of my close friends or family find out, but even then, they will never understand the true effort it took to create it.

Connecting with others who felt as I did was crucial to keep my spirits up. For me, that place was Twitter. In a short time after creating my account, I connected with so many other writers who woke up early like I did, who struggled like I did, who experienced failure like I did. They gave me career advice. They became my beta readers. They became my friends.

Surrounding myself with hardworking people pushed me to stay focused on my goals and remember that self-doubt is normal. Once or twice a week, I connect with the friends I made on Twitter. We share experiences. We share frustrations. We share tools. And in doing so, we help each other fix our cars.

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