The Screenwriter’s Guide to Work/Life Balance

One day before I headed out to my Summer-in-October long-delayed Hawaiian vacation, I mused: When you suddenly think to yourself how much easier it would be to go on working FOREVER rather than going on vacation, you know some things are definitely out of whack.

It reminded me of a time when a manager friend once told me as we were sitting on the back porch of his company’s headquarters: “At the end of the day, this is not a job. It’s a lifestyle.”

And this lifestyle is no joke.

Workaholism is infectious. Just look at me: I am surrounded by hard working, focused, determined writers (for the most part); I meet their hard work and commitment with my own. Working hard, putting in long days is almost a badge of honor. See? I really do care about my job. Giving it all I got at every turn. No matter the cost.

The good news is that my working writers and I love our jobs (though admittedly my job is much more fun than some gigs in some writers rooms! #lovemyjob). But we all find satisfaction in it. We’re fortunate enough to be able to do something that we choose to do and that we love, rather than working at an unfulfilling job we just sort of… ended up with. So when you start getting up at 5am to get your own pages written before you head into the room? That’s fine. And when you take scripts to bed with you, reading until you fall asleep after a long day of writing, outlining, networking, community building or, in my case, coaching, answering emails, reviewing materials… What’s the big deal?

Another manager friend once told me, “I read a script until I fall asleep, then wake up early every morning to finish what I was reading.” A married manager who, in addition to having her own business, also has a couple of pets and a couple of kids.

The idea is that when you love something, when, as a writer or a career coach, you are building your business (which, let me tell you, is never ever done building) we all believe wholeheartedly that YOU should be giving it everything. Even when you are a successful writer, it’s always about the next original project, the next job, the next take you have to develop. I don’t know many writers who rest on their laurels; there is a high awareness that if you don’t do the work yourself, it will slip away and go to someone else.

Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner said, “Entrepreneurs will to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”

So true. And writers, coaches, consultants, producers, directors, are all alike in that sense. We are all entrepreneurs in our own right. And we all tend to feel like with every hour of work put in we are fighting for our business. We are going the extra mile. We are maximizing our potential. We are leaving no stone unturned. In some ways, the easiest thing to do when you have worked yourself to the bone is to keep working. Especially when that works provides you with so much satisfaction.

But there is a problem with that approach: It’s not sustainable. Not in the long run, anyway. On the balcony of The Griffin Club during a work meeting with one of my longest-standing now-working clients and dearest friends, we found ourselves talking about the various ways in which stress and exhaustion, brought by a lack of work/life balance, manifested in each of us over the years: Headaches. Upper respiratory infections we couldn’t fight off. Flues. Shingles. And then… some scarier medical events that shall go unnamed. All of us who have been at it (whatever our individual IT is) for a while have been there.

Over the years I’ve learned, for example, that if one of my writers has been in a TV writer’s room for a long stretch, working long hours and hard days day in and day out delivering those pitches in the room, impressing her showrunner, killing it on the page and maneuvering the room politics, and rarely (if ever) allowing herself a day off, she is going to get sick as soon as she comes out of the room. Her body is going to express all the stress she’s been carrying, and force her on her ass.

And the thing is, just because the writer will rest up, restore, then get up and do it all over again doesn’t mean that her body is just going to adjust to it.

Things are not much easier for those writers who have yet to break in. Working a full-time job, tending to relationships and friends and family, and finding time to write with any consistency is no small feat. There are those writers that I work with who wake up at 5am every morning to get a few hours of writing in before the kids are up then off to school while they themselves are off to work, only to come home, feed the family, then put in another hour before they crash. It’s not easy, but it’s what you have to do if you want to compete, improve your craft and stand out in a very crowded screenwriting space.

It’s easy to forget that creativity has a cap. And that you can’t just write-write-write at every opportunity when time presents itself. As someone working in the industry, or just starting the construction of his career, you have to make sure that you consistently fill the well, that you are not just constantly draining it.

Which is where work/life balance has to come in. Because killing ourselves is just not sustainable. Not in the long run, and certainly not for the whole of our careers. Breaking in, and subsequently working in the industry, has to be approached as a marathon, not a sprint (LINK). And the more work/life balance we integrate into our lives, the better off we will be.

I get it: Hawaiian vacations, for most of us, are a rarity. Getting to go and play and walk on the beach and stare at the sunset night after night is an absolute luxury (As I write this, I realize that I am telling myself this, as much as I am telling anybody else). But whatever we can do to bring balance to our day-to-day life, the better off we will be. Ride horses on the weekend. Take a dance class just for fun. Read a book that you don’t have to develop a take for, or go for a hike or a walk or a swim. Play board games. Have dinner parties. Whatever you’re into, make space in your life for it.

My advice? Come up with a comprehensive, ambitious but realistic schedule of all things writing and writing-related, and make sure to slot at least one fun activity in there as well. If you can get regular meditation and/or yoga and Pilates, all the better! Remember: Writing is output; to balance that you will need input not only of writing-related things such as reading scripts, networking, and watching your fair share of movies and TV shows, but also of activities and experiences that fill the well of your writing, so that you never work yourself into a state where you feel like you’re out of things you want to write about. For more on this, check out my blogpost HOW A BIG LIFE LEADS TO BETTER WRITING.

Seriously. To find balance, come up with a schedule because time to do extra stuff is never EVER going to just show up. Update it weekly with the following:

  • Writing breakdown – which days are you writing, what time, and how many hours?
  • What are you reading this week and when?
  • What are you watching this week and when? 
  • What networking events or writers group or industry panels are you going to?
  • What fun, non-writerly activities are you taking on for the sake of a better work/life balance?

If you’re not sure how to do this, EMAIL ME through my contact form; I’ll happily send you my weekly goal planner template.

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed for the podcast The Other 50% Julie, the host, asked me what areas of life I didn’t yet succeed in. I told her without even giving it a second thought: I failed to find a way to fit 20 minutes of meditation into my daily routine. This is something that I still very much need to work on. Which is to say: take it from me, a woman who has continuously failed to achieve perfect work/life harmony (maybe I #lovemyjob a bit too much) but is still very much trying: Creating some semblance of balance will benefit your screenwriting career, as well as your well-being.