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I’ve been a writer for fifteen years, five as a full-time writer, and still haven’t figured out how to get the people in my life to view it as a job. Right now, I’m editing a novel to a very tight deadline (in force due to timings with the London Book Fair and they aren’t going to move that for me ;)) so extended hours without interruption are vital.

How do you do it? How do you get people to understand that writing is a job, a very time-consuming job, that needs long periods without interruption? As a professional writer, how do you get people to give your time and work the same respect they give to people who work in an office?

I have friends and family who wouldn’t dream of calling my husband at his office in the middle of the day, but will quite happily call me over trivial matters, every day, despite me suggesting as an alternative, a quick text to ask for a call back when I’m free, or to call after 7pm, which is when I finish for the day. They turn up on the doorstep in the middle of the afternoon, make plans that require endless days off and get annoyed if I resist. Most days, I struggle to get an hour or two uninterrupted. I’ve tried asking nicely. I’ve tried being firm. I’ve even completely lost my temper. Yet a week later, once all the dust has settled, everything is forgotten and it all starts again.

So, how do you manage interruptions without upsetting the people around you?

This may get closed as off-topic, but it is a question regarding the craft of professional writing, focussed on an actual problem, and I’m hoping for some solid practical advice rather than opinion/discussion.

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    @GGx I managed to find it after a little bit of digging. Here it is: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/34492/16400 (I thought it was in IPS because the subject matter was about convincing family members, but after a bit of sideways thinking I realised it was actually over on workplace.) – Pharap Jan 19 '18 at 14:23
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about working from home, phone calls, dealing with family, and suggestions both humorous and serious has been moved to chat. Please continue it there; everybody who commented has privileges in that room. – Monica Cellio Jan 19 '18 at 17:05
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    interpersonal.stackexchange.com seems to be most suitable. – gnasher729 Jan 19 '18 at 20:47
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    @Pharap, that's the first Q&A I thought of too, thanks for putting in the effort to find it ;). Personally, I am a freelancer (engineering, not writing) and sometimes I have work best served by my own personal workshop that is currently stored in parts at my mothers (we're building a house after having moved country) - her friends visit often and typically either want to catch up with her only son or learn all about what I'm doing with the 'whatzit' etc. - if my mother isn't home, they stand there expecting their cup of tea ;) – Lamar Latrell Jan 20 '18 at 20:27
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    The accepted answer here is fine, but let me just state something obvious here: In the world, some people will simply understand writing is work and others won’t. Those that understand writing is work need nothing more than just to be told, “I’m writing…” and that’s it. The others? I won’t say you will have to get into conflict with them to respect your need for space, but you need to get ready for something. Meaning, physically not be near people like that, set phone messages as such, set email and messenger replies like that. Even disable things to assert it. – JakeGould Jan 21 '18 at 20:13

12 Answers 12

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I have worked from home for over fifteen years, I treat it like a job, with minor laxities (but not in my schedule). I have a separate cell phone which is the only number I give for work colleagues.

On my personal phone, my message is approximately: "I am working, if this is an emergency then text me, or leave a message and I will check at my next break."

In general: Do not allow people to do anything they would NOT do if you worked for a boss in a building somewhere. If you wish to answer the phone, be a tougher boss of yourself: You are a writer, so say what you would say if that were true for some character of yours: "I am sorry Mom, I am in the middle of something and I have a deadline and I cannot afford to talk right now. I will call you later on my break."

If they try to talk any way, "this will just take a minute," then say "No, I am working, I am hanging up, don't be mad," and hang up.

Think about the situations, write responses for a character that really cannot take personal calls at work, and use them.

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    Related: don't say you're busy because you're writing (or editing); say you're working or you're at work. – Monica Cellio Jan 17 '18 at 17:09
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    Reiterating @MonicaCellio - change the language you use. You're not writing, you're working. But agreed, this is great advise. – Thomo Jan 17 '18 at 23:24
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    One point not covered above: If people insist on turning up on your doorstep without calling first, during what you've made clear are your work hours, IMO they are the ones being rude. You do not need to apologise for telling them abruptly to go away; what they are doing is no different to ringing your doorbell in the middle of the night when you're asleep. – Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 18 '18 at 12:07
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    UPDATE -------------------- Thank you to everyone who posted for your wonderful advice and support. I followed it today. My phone is a sea of red missed calls and not one of them left a message. I ignored the door and cut off all forms of internet communication. As a result, I completely rewrote two whole chapters, 5,500 words. And I don't feel guilty at all. If I can keep this up, that deadline is going to be a walk in the park. Thank you all. I'm so grateful for all your advice. It's nice to know you're not alone. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 18:14
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit Meh, to an extent. I am friendly with my neighbor of twenty years, she knows I work from home and doesn't bother me, unless I am outside (e.g. mail, dog). One day a few years ago she knocked on my door, her car wouldn't start, she had an appointment with unpleasant consequences if she missed it, and it was too late for a cab. So, even though if I had been across town in an office I would not have been interrupted, I still just said, "Okay let's go". No other favors since. If their losses would outweigh my own by a significant margin, I am still an altruist, not a jerk. – Amadeus Jan 19 '18 at 12:23
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The number one thing you have to do is set boundaries and stick to them. As a freelance professional, this is as much a part of your job as the actual writing. If you aren't respecting your work hours, no one else will either. So, train yourself to NOT answer your phone OR your door during your work hours. If it's important, people will leave a message. If they are dropping in unannounced, they are choosing to run the risk you won't be available. Every single time you answer the phone or door, you are reinforcing a message that your work hours are negotiable.

My wife is a professional artist and over the years, she has learned to remind people firmly (including me!) "No, I can't do that, that is my studio time."

Aside from this, I heartily second @chaotic's suggestion of working outside the home. Coworking spaces are increasingly common in big cities, and coffee shops are everywhere.

  • Thank you Chris, this is very sound advice. You are right that I shouldn't feel bad if people drop by unannounced, and not answering the door is as important as not answering the phone. I'm going to stop doing that. – GGx Jan 17 '18 at 17:49
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    @GGx "So, train yourself to NOT answer your phone OR your door during your work hours." This is important. If someone drops by during your working hours after telling them not to, you are not obligated to entertain them for even a moment. It is not rude to leave them standing at the door; they are being rude, for failing to respect the boundaries you have set. – hBy2Py Jan 18 '18 at 21:58
  • @hBy2Py, you are right and this is something I've struggled with. It makes me squirm not to answer the door. But, I need to be much stronger and respect my boundaries as much as I'm expecting other people to. Thx. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 5:38
  • Can you silence the doorbell? If you were working somewhere else you wouldn't hear it either. – RedSonja Jan 19 '18 at 9:46
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As a quick preamble, note that I am not a professional writer, and therefore I am not speaking from experience.

From the sounds of it, you've tried the sensible approach. I'm going to assume that there are some people among the group that you can trust not to bother you during a work day, though, even if they are not in the majority. My suggestion then is to Silence your phone and get some good sound-canceling headphones.

You need to establish solid boundaries, and if people aren't willing to respect them then you do not have to respect them.

However, shutting yourself off in isolation entirely is risky if there is an emergency. Most modern phones allow you to selectively silence your phone for ALL callers EXCEPT a specific set. You can assign the people you trust not to bother you to that specific set, and group-block everyone else while you are working.

This may seem extreme, but you've tried the normal approach, and people were not willing to heed your requests. I would let everyone know that you will no longer be available at all while you are working, and leave it at that. You don't need to give details about what specific method you are using- for all they know you are actually out of the house.

I would note that this method obviously falls apart completely if you ever waver in your conviction.

I hope this is useful in some manner. Best of luck.

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    Hi Michael, yes, I've tried that. The friends and family I have the most trouble managing are those who don't work. Many of my friends are stay-at-home mums and my own mother's retired. They know I'm at home, and think I don't have a job, so they call for a chat, they don't want to text or email. If I explain that I'm working they'll say, 'Oh, I thought you might be taking a break.' Or <enter any number of excuses here>. It's hard enough to explain to someone who works full-time that writing is a full-time job, but, thus far, I've found it impossible with people who are also at home. – GGx Jan 17 '18 at 15:43
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    Strangely, I have a writer/producer friend who's a man. He works from home as well, yet nobody would dare disturb him during the day. By contrast, his wife writes radio drama for the BBC to very strict deadlines, yet she has as much trouble as I do explaining to people that she has a full-time job. Does he garner respect because he's a man? Or are we women too soft? I don't know. I have tried to be very hard indeed. Arguments have ensued. But they're soon forgotten and have no impact at all. – GGx Jan 17 '18 at 15:47
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    I would like to point out that "being available for emergencies" is highly overrated: Not so long ago, people did not have cell phones and were completely unreachable for hours at a time. If an emergency happens, 112 (or 911, depending on your country) is the number to call. Everything else is not life-threatening and, thus, can wait. My point being: Don't be afraid to turn off your phone. – Heinzi Jan 18 '18 at 12:45
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    @GGx It could be cultural as much as gender bias but I've worked from home and gotten the exact opposite reaction to you. Visitors, having been told that I'm working from home when I've stopped to join my partner (who had time off work) and X company for a coffee, have immediately assured me that it's ok that I don't stop working while they're there. Of course it could also be that my company simply isn't as highly prized... – Brent Hackers Jan 18 '18 at 14:32
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    @GGX (sorry) A genre bias? Interesting theory, So maybe action-thriller writers get more "They're working right now" respect than fantasy-sci-fi writers? :) – Brent Hackers Jan 18 '18 at 14:52
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Just to emphasize what others have already said:

If, as you say, your explanations "go in one ear and out the other", then that is because through your behavior you have indicated that your explanations are irrelevant and inconsequential.

If you say you need to not be interrupted but then answer the phone, you effectively say that you can be interrupted and in fact love to be.

The solution to your problem, therefore, is quite simple and straightforward:

If you do not want to be interrupted then do not be interrupted.

That is:

The solution is to change your own mindset.

You must believe that writing is a job and that you must not be interrupted. As soon as you believe that – and act on that belief – people will learn that you mean what you say.

  • This is VERY sound advice, thank you. This post has been incredibly helpful, far more than I was ever hoping for. You are right, it is my own mindset that I must change. That is the one thing in my control. Trying to change the mindset of other people hasn't worked for me at all, but I'm beginning to understand why I have failed in that. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 5:40
  • More simply put: Do Not Disturb mode & dead bolt – Basil Bourque Jan 22 '18 at 1:48
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As a working scientist, there are interruptions at the bench all day. As a teacher, people say "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach."

I believe there are a number of jobs that do not have the privilege of quietude or respect that you describe. Others, do perhaps, but I suspect that is a 'top dog' quality not a job quality. I bet famous authors don't get phone calls to chat all the time.

As an older person, I am not seen as competitive. As an american, I am occasionally insulted online.

These items are likewise stupid, but normal to being human.

As a writer, I find peace by working from home and turning everything off, and coming online every time my brain needs a moment to process subconsciously, which is happening right now.

Don't answer the phone. Change the message to say "Please call between 7 - 8 pm.

ALSO - Your boundaries will be respected far more easily if YOU KEEP THEM AS WELL. If you are breaking them at your discretion, your friends and family will think its fair game. You need to honor your own guidelines.

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    DPT, You're absolutely right, these are all parts of life, frustrating as they are. And I think I have underestimated the damage I do by breaking boundaries at my discretion. Yesterday, I posted a message to someone asking for some important information (it was a one sentence message but, it could have waited till after 7). Someone else saw that post and thought, 'Ahh, she's not working.' And immediately telephoned me for a chat. I must be even tougher on myself with these boundaries than I am with other people. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 5:35
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Writing is just a side-line to me, but I work from home, so my situation is similar.

I don't have the nerve to refuse to answer the phone or the door. I'm too worried that it might actually be an emergency, or at least something important.

But I simply don't let people barge in on me. If someone calls me when I'm working and it's not an emergency, I say, "I'm sorry, I'm at work right now, I'll call you back tonight" or something of the sort. I rarely have anyone push it, but if they do my next sentence is something like, "Seriously, I have to get this job done today. I don't have time to chat." And then I hang up.

I don't want to be rude, but if someone demands I give them time when I am trying to work and earn a living, THEY are the ones being rude. If I spend too much time on the phone and miss deadlines, I presume I would eventually lose my job. If you're a free-lancer, you can't not lose your job per se, but you could lose clients. These people are saying that your need to earn an income and support yourself is secondary to their desire to have an amusing conversation. I'm sorry, no. They are being incredibly rude and selfish. I rebuff such people as politely as I can, but I don't feel guilty for doing so. I think the thing is to just be firm. Don't be afraid to hang up. If someone comes to the door, I just wouldn't let them in. Again, "sorry, I'm working now, I can't take time out for a visit". And if they don't say okay and leave, close the door and lock it.

If a friend or relative says you are being rude for refusing to speak to them, I'd say something like, "This is my job. If I just showed up at your office and wanted you to sit and chat with me for an hour, could you take time off to do that?" If they want to argue about it, they're not much of a friend. Even if they honestly can't comprehend why you need to work for a living, a real friend would accept that you can't socialize at certain times of day.

  • Thanks Jay. I have never hung up or shut the door. Instead, I waffle on about why interruptions are so damaging to a writer's flow, wasting even more time and getting wound up, which stops all creativity in its tracks. I tried the 'Sorry, I'm working right now, can I call you back later' thing yesterday, it didn't work, I received a lot of excuses for why she'd called when I'd asked on dozens of occasions to call after 7. I should have been firmer, reiterated the statement and hung up. Next time, that's what I'll do. A lot of this problem is of my own making and I need to take steps to change. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 5:53
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    @GGx It is much easier to not pick up the phone in the first place than it is to hang up on someone. If you don't pick up the phone, there is no rejection implied, because you could not have heard or not be at home or be busy. But if you pick up the phone, you signal that you are ready to talk, and if you hang up after that signal, it will come over as "I have time, but not for you," which is hurtful. – Sylvain Prudhomme Jan 19 '18 at 8:57
  • @SylvainPrudhomme That is a VERY good point. I hadn't really thought of what picking up the phone in the first place implies. Thank you, that's really helpful. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 9:34
  • @SylvainPrudhomme That's true. The catch is that if you don't pick up the phone, it might actually be an emergency. Any time I think, "I'm just not going to pick up the phone", my next thought is, but what if when I finally listen to the voice mail I hear my daughter saying, "Dad, there's someone following me. Please help." and then the next message is from the police department asking me to come identify the body. Likely? No. But it could happen. – Jay Jan 19 '18 at 22:16
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The ideal solution, despite being impracticable for most writers, is to find a new workplace in order to work in isolation. A small office, close to your home should do. Some musicians afford a separate place for rehearseing their songs - but they do have more requirements (acoustic-wise and so) than writers.

For cheaper alternatives, a coworking office, the local library or even a coffee shop are places that are harder to reach.

  • Hi Chaotic, thanks, this is a great solution, one I've used a lot in the past, and would highly recommend. It's a tricky one for me, though. I have two American Cocker Spaniels (one with dreadful separation anxiety), so I take them to workplaces with me and they sleep beautifully under the table. The problem is, they look like teddy bears, and so I get strangers interrupting me every ten minutes asking if they can pet them and what breed they are. I found a co-working place near my home, but the fees are extortionate, I can't afford them. Hopefully, in the future finances will allow an office. – GGx Jan 17 '18 at 17:42
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    You could find a new workspace right where you are. Define a room, or a corner of a room, to be your office. When you are there you are working. When you leave that space you are taking a break. This has the advantage of a dog-permeable barrier. – RedSonja Jan 19 '18 at 9:49
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If you cannot change other people, you can change your own situation:

  • switch off your phone, set up an answering machine that you are at work
  • have separate private and professional email adresses, only check the professional one while working
  • switch off your door bell
  • if someone knocks at your door, don't answer
  • wake up as early as possible so that you are finished when other people are coming to you after work

The important thing is that you should not be fighting other people's perception of you but the effect of that on your work. But if that perception is also important to you, display the results of your work prominently in your home and gift others the results of your work if they are something interesting for the general public like novels.

  • Konrad, that's good advice, thank you. I can switch off my doorbell! I shall do that. The early starts are very helpful too, I find. I started at 4am this morning and feel so much better about my productivity today. You make a really valid point... is part of the reason I find this so distressing that people's perception is so important to me? Perhaps. When I was struggling to find an agent for my first novel, I got comments like, 'Why don't you just go and get yourself a nice little job?' and I did find that quite upsetting. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 14:53
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    I think I need to come to terms with the fact that people do see this as a hobby. I think, until the money comes rolling in (one can dream) and I have multiple novels on the shelf (one can dream more), it will always be seen that way and the sooner I come to terms with that, the happier I'll be. At the end of the day, their perception is meaningless. It doesn't change how or why I do what I do. This post has been amazing. It's really made me see that I'm beating my head against a wall trying to change other people, when all I need to do is make a few changes myself. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 14:56
  • Thanks! I'm glad that my answers was so helpful to you, I hope it works out in practice as well because caring about other people's perceptions is hard wired into the human brain (used to be vital) so it is hard to change that. Maybe there is a local writers or self employed group where you can get support? – Konrad Höffner Jan 18 '18 at 16:20
  • They really, really have been. I belong to a writers' group and they are AMAZING. The thing is, we're all at the same crucial point: doing final edits for our agencies or competition deadlines, and I respect their time as much as they respect mine. So, though I could call them for support, ironically, I don't want to disturb them when they're work is so important right now. Go figure! – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 16:28
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    BTW, my phone is a beautiful sea of red missed calls right now. And so far, nobody has left a message. So, none of them could have been that important. It feels good. – GGx Jan 18 '18 at 16:30
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This problem is not unique to writing. It is a problem for anyone who works from home. Some people have understanding family/friends who do their best to avoid interrupting the work-from-home person. This doesn't appear to be you.

Other people have family/friends who can't seem to ever grasp the concept that what the work-from-home person is doing is really a job. Sometimes, this is the work-from-home person's fault. You mention you have dogs. Do you interrupt your work "often enough" to mess around with the dogs that it could possibly give the impression that you aren't at work? Or similar types of distractions that only occur because you are home? If so, then it's understandable that others don't treat your work-from-home as a job because you aren't necessarily doing so also.

If all else fails, and getting an office outside the home is not financially practical, I've heard of these things called libraries that are generally supposed to be fairly quiet where someone could do some writing for free.

  • Hi Dunk, I agree, it's not unique to writing. But I think writing, especially novels, has the added problem that you don't get paid for what you do until it's finished and perhaps not even then. I used to work at home as an I.T. Engineer and the problem was nowhere near this bad because the job I had was respected. No, I'm very disciplined at home, I have to be, and my dogs are used to that. They sleep between a fixed walking schedule and won't bring me a ball to play with until my husband comes home at 7. They know at 7pm, they get my full attention. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 5:20
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    But, the one thing my dogs do stop me doing is working away from home. Libraries, yes, you know, I've heard of those. They don't allow dogs. Which means I waste a lot of time traveling to the library, coming back at lunch time to walk the dogs, going back to the library afterwards, and then home again when they close at 5.30 on some days. That time is more draining than interruptions, so working from home is definitely more efficient. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 5:26
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    I'm sure a few people on here will think, 'Well, you shouldn't have got dogs then.' But my dogs enable me to work from home for days on end without seeing another soul. My dogs are not the problem, they are very well trained and a wonderful solution for the loneliness that strikes some people who work from home. Places like co-working offices, libraries, cafes and so on also come with their own distractions that I don't have in my quiet home. What I need is a solution that enables me to work from home uninterrupted, in the creative space that I have made for myself. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 5:32
  • I do however, acknowledge that this is my fault, esp. after reading all the incredibly helpful comments on here. I realise that the boundaries I have set for myself haven't been anywhere near as rigid as they need to be. – GGx Jan 19 '18 at 5:35
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    Sadly, your dogs behave better than (some of) your family and friends. – Ángel Jan 20 '18 at 0:07
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You've set boundaries, told them to only call during the day in an emergency.

So assume it's an emergency and answer every call with some variation of "OH MY GOD, WHATS WRONG? IS IT [NAME]? WHAT HAPPENED TO [NAME]?".

They should get the point.

3

The other answers got the main points about not answering the phone et cetera, but here's one last thing that I didn't see anyone suggest.

Place a sign on your door that says:

I am at work between X and Y. Please do not knock unless there is a genuine emergency

With any luck people will read the message and reconsider knocking.

If they do knock and it's not an emergency then you can point to the sign and tell them they are being discourteous.

(Be sure to add an exception if you're expecing a delivery.)

2

Time is money, so let it be known. "Sorry, I'd love to do {X} with you, but I can't afford to take the time off work right now."

Also, if you are answering your phone when you are working, that is on you. Stop doing it.

protected by Monica Cellio Jan 19 '18 at 17:09

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