I’ve hit some milestones in my writing career.
Bestseller lists. Six figures in a month. One million books sold. Those things are fun but not necessarily groundbreaking. After all, there are authors hitting even higher on even more impressive bestseller lists. Authors who can make seven figures a month.
There are authors who’ve sold two and three million books.
The things I've done? Good, but all in the realm of doable.
The thing that’s met with surprise, and sometimes disbelief, is that I work four hours a day. Which to me illustrates how deeply we’ve paired time and money in our minds.
So what I want to say first about working four hours a day is this—
The amount of money you earn is not driven by how long you work.
There are authors who can earn five figures a month. You wouldn’t expect that author to only work a tenth as long as me. There are authors who can earn seven figures a month.
You wouldn’t expect that author to work 10X as long as me.
That would be 44 hours a day. Besides the impossibility of that, we understand that this high-earner is selling books at a high volume. That’s how they earn money.
If you want to earn more, the answer lies in selling a higher number of books, not in working ever longer hours until we collapse from exhaustion.
Which brings me to my story...
COLLAPSING FROM EXHAUSTION
I never made the decision to work only four hours a day.
It wouldn’t have been possible for me to make that decision. My old beliefs would have made sure I kept working more and more hours, despite the fact that I would continue to max out at 10 a day even while my income went up - thus disproving the entire time-to-money correlation anyway, but mental blocks aren't always logical.
Luckily for me, my body decided it had enough of that.
It didn’t feel so lucky at the time.
In the span of a week I went from sleeping six hours a night like an ordinary overworked grown up to fourteen hours a day. Even when I was awake I was exhausted, unable to focus on anything. For the first time in my life I didn’t have control over my sleep habits. If I tried to stay awake at ten a.m., my body would shut down.
I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t think.
Most days I would drag myself out of bed to have a snack, take a shower, and then fall back into bed. I went to doctors who told me nothing was wrong with me and sent me home again.
PROBLEM: We needed my income to pay the mortgage.
When authors see their income falling, they have to consider going back to work, doing whatever they did before writing. Except I knew that I could never go back to a computer science job working 40+ hours a week in an office when I couldn’t even sit upright for longer than two hours in a row. Going back to work was not an option.
The only thing I could do, the thing I had to do, was earn money in four hours a day.
And because necessity is the mother of invention, I did that.
I finally learned Facebook ads. I repackaged a backlist series and hit it hard, re-releasing it over the course of a year, using ad spend that made me back 5X what I was putting into it.
In the books I did write that year I finally stopped jumping around and wrote in a series--one, two, three. The new series funneled people into the backlist re-release. The backlist re-release funneled people into the new series.
I finally stopped messing around on Twitter and reading long drama threads because I literally did not have time, in the most real way.
You can see I finally did a lot of things.
I already knew that I should learn ads and repackage backlist and write in a series and stop using Twitter as my personal soap opera, but I wasn’t doing it. Why? That’s the second thing I want to say about working four hours a day—
Sometimes it feels easier to work longer hours.
Working shorter hours means doing the things you have to do. There’s no putting things off or doing it later, because there is no later. There’s only right now, and if my actions don’t cover my mortgage then my family is screwed.
How is it that I could finally learn Facebook ads in two hours a day when I didn’t learn it in the ten hour days leading up to that? Because in some level, without knowing it at the time, I was able to use my long hours as an excuse NOT to do the scary thing.
The question is: what would you have to do if you only worked four hours a day?
The answer probably has some scary things in it. Those are the things you know you should be doing, but you’re not. And maybe your long hours are part of the reason why.
The really amazing thing was not even working less.
The amazing thing is that I was able to double my income working less. That’s what happens you stop connecting time with money. That’s what happens when you do the things you should because you don’t have time for troublesome self-imposed limitations and excuses.
The 80/20 rule is the idea that eighty percent of your book sales are coming from twenty percent of your marketing actions. The key is to find out which actions and then do more of them, and less of the other stuff. That means putting more work up front into looking at numbers. And it means acting on them, which is honestly the hardest part.
Fast forward through stabbing myself with a needle every day full of vitamin B12 and other fun things, my ability to stay awake slowly, slowly, slowly over the past three years has gone back up. I’m still not at full capacity of when this whole thing started, and maybe I never will be.
It was tempting to start working more hours as I became able.
See also: sometimes it feels easier to work longer hours.
The main reason I kept shorter hours was because of my family. Mostly my son, who I picked up from school every day, even through my worst sleeping months. Back then I had to collapse as soon as I got home, but once I had more energy we could go back out to parks and shops and generally enjoy life. For a lot of reasons, I was never comfortable with the daycare thing, and so this was a core reason why I wanted to continue working less hours.
As I continued this way, I realized the value of something else. Negative space. The part away from the focus, which also has value.
In a painting of flowers, the negative space is the area around the flowers.
In life, negative space is for contemplation. For daydreaming. There’s a TED talk on boredom and its correlation with creativity.
From Boredom is Good For You:
One group of subjects did a boring activity first, while the others went straight to the creative task. Those whose boredom pumps had been primed were more prolific.
That’s a pretty magical word when it comes to authors--prolific. And again most of the time we envision more prolific authors working longer hours, but in reality that’s not always true.
Being prolific is important not only for writing books but for marketing, which is largely a creative task. Come up with ten headlines for Facebook ads, then come up with ten more. What’s a new way to position this series to find new readers? And another?
Another hidden benefit is opportunity cost.
If I could work four hours a day or two hours a day and still earn money, then I learned how to work even zero hours a day for days at a time.
That meant when someone comes along with a new opportunity, like a new ad service or an idea for a boxed set I can spend my entire four hour day on it without risking my income. Some of those things did not work out. Some of them did work out, and testing was the only way to know.
The downside to having more energy is that I had the option of working more, of giving up all this wonderful family time and creativity and opportunity in exchange for more busy work.
When I frame it that way, it sounds crazy that I’d even consider it?
Like I said, sometimes it feels easier to work longer hours.
Here’s why: the things we have to stop doing have both real and imagined value to us.
I gave up my other, less performing pen name where I'd been spending about half my time writing and marketing, despite making only a fraction of the sales. A lot of my self-image as an author came from that pen name. I gave up my side job, which despite making a relatively low amount of money, it was a nice stable income to supplement my writing.
As a result, my Skye Warren books sold beyond what I even thought possible.
Here's the third thing about working four hours a day—
It will feel like a loss, because it is.
You're giving up things that feel safe, in exchange for the possibility of more. The money that I made from the other pen name and side job had a very real value to me, but they were holding me back.
Twitter. I thought - I’m keeping up with friends! I’m having a social life! I’m staying in touch with bloggers and readers! I’m being informed about my industry and the world!
In reality it was a stressful environment that would leave me frazzled at best and despairing at worst. Most of the friendships I made during that time were not as deep or as lasting as I thought they would be. And the view of the industry is very limited - which I only figured out after stepping away and seeing all the authors who broke “the rules” with success.
There were some real benefits, friendships that were as deep and lasting as I hoped. That value, both the real and the imagined, are what make it hard to stop doing those things.
Even if the value is real, it doesn't make sense to do them if they require me to adhere to a grueling work schedule or if they keep my family from financial stability.
I didn’t write this because I think every person should work exactly four hours a day.
For every author thinking I can continue working long hours, there are authors who can’t. There are women with health issues like the ones I had, there are women with children and other dependents, there are women whose families rely on their income.
There are women wondering if they can even make it--not just as an author, but as a person whose family is counting on her. That’s who this post is for. That’s why I wrote this, to assure them that it’s possible to work less and earn more. It's not easy, but it's possible, and for a woman in that position, I can tell you from experience, that's everything.
But even if that’s not you... if you're someone who can continue to work long hours if you choose, if you shave 10% off your workday it will be worth reading this post.
If you find 10% more creativity or opportunity it will be worth it.