A Day in the Life of Erika Check Hayden


Erika Check Hayden Courtesy of Erika Check Hayden

Where I work:

Either at my home in San Francisco—eliminating a commute saves time, making days like this one possible—or at Nature’s office downtown.

Most productive time of day:

Definitely the morning. I try to start work early while my editors on the East Coast and in London are still online.


A battered, five-year-old Blackberry. Owning this piece of crap technology is my minor rebellion against the entire concept of smart phones. No apps, no games. It has been dropped countless times, chewed on, and used as hammer. Still it soldiers on.




Each afternoon, I take a moment to look out the window at the golden California sunshine and long for an invigorating hike, jog or outdoor yoga session. Then I realize how much more work I have to do today and how little time I have to get it done, and get right back to it.


Listening to the squeaky hamster wheel of working mommy guilt spinning in my head.

Reading habits:

By the time my kids are in bed and I have a half-hour or so to read, the old brain-box is usually pretty overheated, so I have to read something that has a really compelling narrative to stay with it night after night. My favorite books of the past year have been Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra, Robert Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, and the novels The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbauch, and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Occasionally a science book that tells a truly engrossing human story, like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, or George Johnson’s The Cancer Chronicles makes it onto my reading list, and I fall asleep dreaming that one day I’ll craft a work as compelling as these.

BONUS: A Sample Day:

5:00 a.m.: Rise and shine! The baby wakes up. I put her back to sleep and go check my email.

5:30 a.m.: Waiting in my inbox is an assignment for a news story. Subject: a soon-to-be-published paper. Deadline: today. I read the paper and dash off an email requesting an interview from the author.

6:30 a.m.: Parenting break. Both kids get up for the day. As they rampage through the house, Tom and I attempt to clothe and feed them.

8:00 a.m.: Back to work. Job 1: Report. This is actually my favorite part of journalism when it goes well. Reporting is like a series of conversations, each building on the previous one as I gather more information. When the subject is as engrossing as this one, it’s a joy.

The paper I’m writing about today concerns convergent evolution in the genes of bats and dolphins—the idea that both animals have independently evolved similar genes over time—and whether these similarities might enable both species to echolocate—to navigate via sound. It’s always thrilling to dig into the details of how life has changed over time, from tiny colonies of proto-bacteria to animals with these sorts of complex abilities. This is what makes my job a privilege and gets me out of bed in the morning. (Well, the baby does that. But this is what eventually convinces me not to crawl right back into bed).

Job 2: Write. Not usually such a joy. But thankfully, as I’m on a tight deadline, it’s over pretty fast.

1:00 p.m.: File the story.

1:01 p.m.: Did I mention that I have another piece due today? Time to get started on that one. Thankfully, I’ve already done a lot of the reporting for this piece via requests for comments that I emailed to sources a few days ago.

3:00 p.m.: A VIS (very important source) calls to points out a potential problem with an aspect of the convergent evolution paper. Damn! A late-breaking methods issue! Does this undermine the whole paper? Or is it more of a caveat? He doesn’t know. I send out a flurry of emails to three new sources. Pray to the deadline gods that at least one will answer tonight.

4:59 pm: Kick in the second story.

5:00 p.m.: Workday ends. Reunite with family: hugs, squeals of delight. Digging up the flowerbeds. Stuffed animal tea parties. Bike rides. Scrounging for dinner. Kid baths and bedtime. Cleanup.

9:30 p.m.: Checking my email, I discover that two of the three sources on the potential problem with the evolution paper have responded to my request for comment. There are benefits to reporting on a field whose practitioners are just as work-addicted as are we journalists. The bottom line is that the potential problem is real, but not a deal-breaker for the paper.

Whew. My story has not fallen to pieces.

10:00 p.m.: Collapse with exhaustion and get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

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