The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

Christmas calendar compression

I can now click a button on a Web page and have almost any product delivered to almost anywhere in the United States within two days at no additional cost. That’s a respectable alternative to Star Trek’s transporter, but it has somehow not freed me from hitting this point in December with this much Christmas shopping undone.

Christmas wrapping

Arguably, the existence of Amazon Prime (like every other new parents, we signed up for the retailer’s free “Amazon Mom” option and then couldn’t wean ourselves of the convenience of prepaid two-day shipping) has only enabled my holiday procrastination. As in, right now, I’m comforting myself by thinking about how many more days I have to wait to place orders for family members and have them still arrive before they depart to their respective Christmas destinations.

Meanwhile, I’m also still figuring out my CES schedule–if I haven’t replied to your PR pitch about meeting at the show, just assume you’ll see me at your booth eventually, or at least don’t call to bug me about it–and lining up some other early-2014 events.

At least my wife takes care of the Christmas cards these days (otherwise, they’d be New Year’s cards). And I’m not on the hook to write any enormous gift-guide packages.

The good news is, in a few weeks both the holidays and CES will be behind me, and I’ll have a good 10 months to decompress and forget most of the lessons I’ve learned about why I should try to knock out more of these holiday chores before Thanksgiving.