A Day in the Life of Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer and the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. She lives in San Jose, California, with her husband and young son. Follow her on Twitter @svobodster.

Elizabeth SvobodaCourtesy of Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda

What I’m working on:

After a tumultuous past couple of years caring for a young baby and shepherding my book out into the world, I’m finally getting back into the swing of things writing freelance pieces on a variety of topics. Right now, I’m working on a Discover column and a health story for O: the Oprah Magazine, as well as longer essay features for Nautilus and Aeon. After writing mostly about selflessness for such a long time, I’m enjoying branching out and investing my efforts in multiple projects—although I do still spend some time on book stuff, like promoting the paperback edition that just came out this August.

I work about 20–25 hours a week these days so I can spend more time with my toddler son. Right now, I plan to ramp up to something resembling a full-time schedule once he heads off to preschool.

Where I work:

From a practical standpoint, I’ve found that I can pretty much work from anywhere. I’m the stereotypical freelancer who’s more productive away from home, which means I spend a lot of my time in coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, and libraries. But I’m also lucky enough to have an artist’s studio building in our backyard with its own wireless Internet, which serves as a nice dedicated workspace about 100 feet from the main house (especially useful for early-morning phone interviews).

Daily routine:

I wake up at around 7:00, or whenever my son wakes up, and scan my email as I’m puttering around and fixing breakfast. Since I’m based on the West Coast, there’s often a glut of email from East Coast editors and colleagues waiting for me as soon as I wake up! I often schedule phone interviews in the early morning Pacific time—my husband can watch my son then, since he hasn’t left for work yet.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I drop my son off with his babysitter at 9:00 a.m., and my real work begins. The first half hour or so is devoted to catching up on email. After that, I’m typically hacking away at my daily word-count goals, which I use religiously to ensure that I don’t end up with more work than I can handle right before a deadline. I break for lunch a little before noon. If I still need to get more writing done, I eat in front of my computer; if I can afford a true break, I linger over my blog feeds for a little while.

At 1:00, I pick my son up from his babysitter’s, and if I’m lucky, he goes right down for his nap around 1:30, at which time I can squeeze in another hour and a half or so of writing. By 4:00 or 4:30, my brain is pretty much tapped out. Sometimes I try to work in the evening after my son goes to bed, but it doesn’t usually go well.

Svoboda on a research trip to the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA.

Svoboda on a research trip to the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California.

Most productive part of my day:

I get my best work done mid to late morning. It used to be early afternoon, but now that my son is with his babysitter from 9:00 to 1:00, morning is the biggest uninterrupted stretch of time I have.

Mobile device:

iPhone 5s. I never thought of myself as a big smartphone person, but I was won over by the iPhone’s workhorse camera—especially since I have a toddler whose daily antics must be documented. And I often turn to smartphone snapshots of various settings to jog my memory and help me add detail to longer narrative pieces.

Computer:

My trusty 13-inch MacBook Air—it’s been incredibly reliable, considering how much of a beating it takes on a daily basis! I may need to upgrade soon, though. I hear that the newest generation of Airs has a better battery, which will help me make better use of all the time I spend in coffee shops.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

OpenOffice and Scrivener. Between those two programs, I’ve got all my writing needs covered. Scrivener is ideal for outlining and structuring larger projects with chapters or subsections; I used it to write my book. Freedom—which temporarily cuts off my access to the Internet—is great for when I really need to hit a daily word count, but keep getting distracted by the ever-flowing stream of emails, tweets, and blog posts. And I’m a to-do list freak (the kind who adds already-done tasks to my list just for the satisfaction of crossing them off), so I don’t know how I’d function without Things.

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Svoboda’s workspace at a writing retreat in Felton, California, where she worked on her book.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

It used to be Candy Crush, but around level 184 I hit a wall and swore the game off for good. Now I play Words With Friends to strengthen the verbal pathways in my brain. Or something.

My reading habits:

With a 22-month-old in the house, finishing a book is much more of an accomplishment these days. Most of my reading time comes in the evening after my son goes to bed, but that assumes I don’t fall asleep early too! I read an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, and young-adult literature (I work on YA projects on the side). Some of my recent favorites have been Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, a well-researched biography of the famous Little House author; Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers; and the Newbery Medal–winning Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata.

Sleep schedule:

Any day when I can get at least seven hours of sleep (usually midnight to 7:00, or thereabouts) is a good day. But I can function on much less if necessary—that’s what coffee is for!

4 Comments

  1. Kim Flachmann says:

    Hi Elizabeth, my students have asked me if you went to college. If you did, where did you go and when did you graduate?

  2. Hi Robin, Yes, the word count goals vary a great deal depending on what type of story I’m working on and where I am in the writing process. Some days, I might aim to crank out 750 draft words on a story; others, I’m just focused on polishing up the 1500 words I have before I submit!

  3. Super profile! So what is your daily word count, and does it vary with the type of story or is it pretty consistent?

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