Is it possible to have a rich and rewarding life and still find time to write? Inspired by David Sedaris Bec Evans plays the stovetop game and considers which of her four burners to switch off and considers the alternatives to making big sacrifices.
Let’s play the stovetop game
Humourist David Sedaris can knock out a perfect analogy to illustrate the ridiculousness of life. In Laugh Kookaburra he recounts a trip into the Australian bush. On the drive through the unending suburbs of Melbourne his friend Pat asked him to picture a four-burner stove. This is a symbolic burner, she explains:
“‘One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’ The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
In the story they play the game, asking: which burner would you switch off?
Choose a burner to switch off
Life is reduced to a stovetop with a limited flow of gas or electricity. I think it’s a pretty clear metaphor for the choices we have to make as writers.
If you’re a full-time writer, you’re lucky to have writing as your work burner, but for many of us our passion doesn’t even get its own burner. As much as we might be tempted to buy a stove with five burners, there’s no room for cheating: to play the game properly you have to substitute one of the existing burners for writing.
What would it be: family, friends, health or work? And to be ‘successful’, what’s your second choice?
It’s not an easy choice, and some people choose not to sacrifice part of their life. I know many writers who decided to wait until they retired before they dedicated serious time to writing, for others it was when their children had grown up and required less parenting. Perhaps waiting might be the answer.
Many of us are too impatient to wait until retirement; we want it all and we want it now.
Debating whether it was possible to have it all consumed much of twentieth century feminism as women entered the workplace and juggled work alongside traditional family commitments. It still rumbles on today in our over busy, overwhelmed lives as both men and women seek that elusive work–life balance.
If having a fulfilling job and a happy family life is possible, other burners have to get switched off. Throw in a hobby like writing that takes time and energy and we’re still stuck in a zero sum world. Something has to give – there are, after all, only 24 hours in a day. Many people choose to neglect health, specifically sleep, in order to make the most of their waking hours.
Research has found that that not getting enough sleep is not only bad for concentration, but can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and other long-term health problems . Oh, and don’t think avoiding your friends is a good choice; being unsociable is also a killer!
Having it all through life hacking
Is it possible to keep all our burners alight? Perhaps the answer to having it all lies with the rise of ‘life hacking’ – using tricks and shortcuts to increase productivity in all areas of life.
There are hundreds of blogs and websites dedicated to the subject with the most popular being Life Hacker. Among the tips for perfecting your morning routine, and building a writing habit, you can find ways to stop wasting food, or pimp your house on a budget.
Despite all the trendy clickbait headlines, life hacking is no different from age old top tips. Any Victorian housewife worth her apron would read time-saving household advice. Readers’ tips still exist in modern women’s magazines, and have been satirised for decades by the likes of Viz. It seems productivity gurus have been with us the whole time.
What fixes do you have?
What’s great about life hacking is the advice is free and everyone can contribute. All of us use ‘hacks’ in our lives, often without realising it. Some of my small fixes include not having my mobile phone on my desk while working, only checking emails at certain points in the day, and switching off all notifications and alerts. None of these involve making big decisions, changing my day or building new habits, but they stop me getting distracted so I’m more productive.
Over the course of the day I free up some time, however brief, to write. This means I get to keep my work, family, health and friends burners switched on. As far as I’m concerned that counts as success – and without ruining David Sedaris’s perfectly constructed ending, I think he came to a similar conclusion.