Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography courtesy of Ann Friedman
Routine is often measured in daily accomplishments: How many items crossed off to-do lists? Hours of work achieved? Minutes of exercise? How did we live today? The words of writer Annie Dillard put it so eloquently, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”
But journalist, podcaster and creator of political and poignant pie charts, Ann Friedman takes a broader view of routine. Based in LA, Ann is a regular contributor to The Cut and Los Angeles Times, a contributing editor to The Gentlewoman, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, ELLE, and The Guardian.
“For me, it has less to do with how do you live every day, but: Are you making work consistently and do people know where to find you consistently?”
To put the emphasis on consistency rather than daily rituals, Ann thinks about her life and work in a weekly time frame.
“A week is the unit of time that I function within – almost no two days are alike, but there are certain things that I do every single week, so there are some similarities and rhythm to them.”
Thinking about things weekly instead of daily might be the key to allowing flexibility and buffering room for our many human foibles – instead of attempting to tick a box for each of component of our everyday lives, we can prioritise them weekly.
“I don’t have a meaningful conversation with a friend every single day, instead I can ask myself, ‘Am I seeing the people I care about every week? Am I devoting the time and space to the people who I care about most, as opposed to who's asking for my time?’ ”
As the self-confessed “least routinised person ever,” Ann offers comfort to those of us who also feel they lack self-discipline – the supposed hero of routine and mastering our days.
“There are so many things I would love to put into my routine. I would love to be the person who makes the same green smoothie every morning and does the same exercise routine, but it just doesn't work for me. I did okay when I had an office job. The idea of waking up and having more of a morning routine and going into an office was fine, but I'm difficult to self-discipline.”
On any given week, Ann records an episode of Call Your Girlfriend podcast, compiles her weekly newsletter and creates a wry pie-chart for subscribers, and works on freelance writing assignments typically exploring gender, politics, and social issues.
Ann’s workload makes for the kind of ad-hoc work schedule most freelancers can relate to, but she has an antidote – ‘compensation time’.
“If I work a weekend day or if I work at night, I really try to take a weekday off or to relax in equal measure,” she said. “Even if I just take two hours off and zone out and watch Golden Girls reruns or something.”
It’s an important self-care commitment for freelancers to remember: Don’t treat yourself worse than you’d expect an employer to.
“The way I think of it is, there are so many downsides to working for yourself – on a tax level, on a job security level – so I really try to be aware of what's good about freelancing as well. One of the nice things about working for yourself is being able to set your own schedule, so I really try to do that.”
A week in the life
I’ll wake up somewhere between 7am and 8.30am. Usually it’s on the earlier side although it will depend on whether I've had a late night the day before.
There are some mornings when I lie in bed with my phone an inch from my face and read the news for an hour, but usually I get up and have a coffee right away. I feel very ritualistic about coffee. It's almost exclusively just one cup – a large one – but one cup.
If I'm on deadline, I like to write right when I wake up while I’m drinking coffee and start fresh. If writing isn’t the main task for the day, I'll usually have my coffee and answer a few emails.
Once I feel like I have a handle on things, I take a step back, read the news and write in my journal a bit. Sometimes it’s a list of something I've been thinking about or it's me outlining something I know I have to write later in the day or later in the week. In moments when I'm not quite so busy professionally or maybe when I'm working on things I might want to do in the future, it's a place to put things to get them out of my head before they become public-facing stuff. My need for it really varies. Sometimes there is some personal problem that is I'm really preoccupied with and I'll do the teenage girl thing and have a feelings-explosion into the journal.
I’ll have a little breakfast in the late morning, maybe some yogurt, or I’ve been making overnight oats occasionally. But let's say I woke up early and I just had coffee and I was really in the work zone and I look up and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, it's 11am’– then I'll make myself like an egg sandwich.
That's really how I think of it. I've never been really someone who could commit to doing morning pages, although I have used that practice at times when I feel my ideas well is really dry and I need to get myself flowing again. I will impose some discipline about how much free writing I need to do. It's not a practice it's a tool.
Sometime between Sunday and Tuesday, I will record an episode of the podcast that I co-host with my friend Aminatou Sow. Every once in a while we would push until Wednesday morning. We have a third collaborator who does the editing, so after we record that's it for my editorial responsibilities to the podcast every week.
Every Friday I send out an email newsletter. I’ll save up links to Simple Note on my phone and desktop throughout the week as I'm going about the Internet, but the actual work in terms of putting it together and making the weekly pie chart is almost always the first several hours of my Friday morning. That might change if I'm traveling or if there's an interview I have to schedule.
When it comes to routine, sending my newsletter every week and having people come to expect it in their inbox every week is very powerful. In a weird way I'm a very routinised person, just not in terms of the clock.
Both the podcast and the newsletter are small businesses, so often there are business-type responsibilities – meetings, planning and some technical admin. I usually do a little bit of that every week for each, but it varies. I've gone through some periods where I spend a lot of time on the business side of one of those, and periods where they're on autopilot.
The other big part of my week is journalism, which is quite variable each week, but roughly I’ll spend the middle of the week working on writing projects.
At any given time I probably have five or so freelance assignments in various stages, I'm either doing interviews for them or they're in the editing process, or I'm in the thick of writing them.
For the first four years of my freelance career, I wrote a weekly column for The Cut. I stopped doing that this year, but I still contribute fairly regularly to the publication, and once a month I write an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, but mostly it's a bit of a grab bag.
Part of pitching now for me is looking ahead to the coming week or the week after and if I see that I'm not too busy, I know that now is the time to be pitching because I will have time to follow through. That’s a really different calculus to when I first started out which was more, ‘You need to be pitching all the time because you pay your rent exclusively with writing.’
There's a really lovely park that comes right up to the back of my house and a really nice hour-long walking loop that I do multiple times a week, and some weeks every day. Let’s say I’m having one of those days where I'm basically still in pajamas because I have been chained to my computer, it will get to four o'clock and I will feel kind of ill because I've been staring at the screen, I’ll go for walk or a jog.
Probably about once a week I’ll have a lunch date with a friend or go for a little walk or something like that. I have a pretty great community of self-employed or flexi-employed friends. It can be nice to talk it out, especially if I'm in the middle of trying to figure out what I think about something or working through some ideas for a piece.
My writing brain turns to mush by about 3pm. If I'm on a tight deadline, I will often still be writing up until whenever I break for dinner, but most days I'm done with the substantive part of my work by four o'clock in the afternoon or so.
It is always my preference to do calls or interviews in the late afternoon and I also do a lot of reading after four. I would say it's fairly common from four until six or seven that I'm reading the articles I've saved throughout the day – it could be articles on people I'm interviewing, or books on topics I'm writing about.
My evenings are for my friends, my partner, and me. I might go meet a friend out at a bar, have someone around for dinner at my house, read, or watch a movie. I feel like I don't have very unique social interests for a 35-year-old white lady. It's very much what you would expect I do with my job, anyway.
I do have a ritual of having a free night scheduled on my calendar each week. It reoccurs on my Google calendar every Thursday night and I'm allowed to move it to other nights of the week, but I can't delete it. That just ensures that I have at least one night a week where I'm home, I'm not going out, I'm not doing any work things.
If I’m home, I'm probably more likely to watch a movie in the evening than I am to watch television. I’m bad with TV – I only have a limited roster of shows that I'm very invested in. I'm watching Insecure and a cartoon called Rick and Morty, and I watch Drag Race religiously when it's on, but I don't watch Game of Thrones.
I usually read for a good hour before I go to bed and I'm often asleep by midnight, but sometimes I'm awake a little later depending on how compelling my book is. That's when I really try to read fiction or read things that don't apply so directly to work.
I'm not always good at this, but I’ll turn my phone on airplane mode and try not to take it off until I'm out of bed the next morning. Essentially it's there and I use it as my alarm, but I try to mentally make it a dead zone.
I feel like I would love to get into a routine where I stretch before bed – I have a great series of bedtime stretches I was good about doing for a while. It was a great way to go to sleep and I woke up feeling better, but I'm bad at following through...
Routine tips from Ann Friedman
1. Build a weekly routine
A week is the unit of time that I function within – almost no two days are alike, but there are certain things that I do every single week, so there are some similarities and rhythm to them.
I don’t have a meaningful conversation with a friend every single day, instead I ask myself, ‘Am I seeing the people I care about every week? Am I devoting the time and space to the people who I care about most, as opposed to who's asking for my time?’
2. Simplenote app for lists and links
Simplenote is where I keep my to do list, newsletter links, track of my ideas for things I want to write about, and keep lists of things to buy such as birthday gifts.
3. Give yourself “comp time”
I try to give myself compensation time – if I work a weekend day or if I work at night, I really try to take a weekday off or to relax in equal measure.
4. Create an accountability system
Some things I can't procrastinate – the podcast has to be recorded by a certain date and time in order to allow Gina enough time to edit it, so if we procrastinate, we're screwing up her week, so that is a great accountability system.
My newsletter goes out by around noon Pacific time every Friday. If I choose to sleep in on Friday I'm going to have to rush to do it, so I really have to stick to a hard deadline. There are also advertisers in my newsletter now, so again that is an accountability system, as well knowing that the open rate drops if I just screw around for three hours and send it at the end of the day. So that helps me.
When it comes to my writing work I have hard deadlines. Frankly, I have a lot of half-finished personal projects and things I want to do that I am terrible at following through on because I don't have some external accountability. Especially when things are lower- or un-paid, I really rely on not wanting to disappoint my friends and collaborators as a mechanism for getting things done.
5. Have multiple projects to beat procrastination
One thing I like about doing so many different types of things is that I can cheat on work with other work. If my brain is feeling just empty, if I feel like I don't have the energy for writing, I can always send invoices, I can always do some business work, I can always answer a few emails. If I were exclusively a writer, I would really struggle with that. I don't think I could just sit around and write words all day, every day.
6. Let side projects build your career
In retrospect, I think that a lot of the things that set me up for the life I have now were choices that I made related to work but outside of my day job. I did not think that the side stuff I did would end up being so important to where I ended up. I think that that's part of it how I develop my career, as well as a certain amount of consistency.
The first outlet I ever wrote for was a blog called Feministing, which was edited by a group of my peers. It was not something that I considered important or prestigious at the time, it was essentially a side project, but it was where I honed some skills and became comfortable putting my opinions onto the Internet, which is how I make a lot of my living these days.
Then the podcast started as a side project and my newsletter started as a side project. There's a lot of things that I think I've done because I was frustrated with a lack of opportunity or lack of growth in the day job that I had, or I couldn't find a way to monetise certain skills that I had, so I found a to feel fulfilled and use those skills.
I still think about my work holistically, even if parts of it are compensated differently or maybe have different levels of prestige. I think of it all the same, which was definitely not the case when I was younger.
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