A Day in the Life of Jennifer Ouellette


Jennifer Ouellette Courtesy of Jennifer Ouellette

What I’m working on:

I spent the first few months of 2014 promoting my new book, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, which involved quite a bit of travel, but I did manage to knock out a few feature articles for various outlets in between. For instance, I wrote about the possibility of manipulating visual perception for a new kind of a “cinema without cuts” for Pacific Standard; covered self-organized criticality in the brain for Quanta, where I am a regular contributor; and had a blast with so-called “digital history” for New Scientist, focusing on the application of mathematical techniques to London’s Old Bailey archives to glean new historical insights.

I maintain my Cocktail Party Physics blog at Scientific American, with a weekly physics links roundup on Saturdays and the occasional additional post when a topic strikes my fancy—anything a bit quirky, interdisciplinary, or involving phase transitions are good bets for inspiration. Who doesn’t love a good phase transition? At the moment, I’m writing weekly recaps of the new WGN America series Manh(a)ttan, a fictionalized series of the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II—simply because I love the series. I always try to work in a bit of behind-the-episode science, too. And I’m finalizing a new book proposal in the next couple of weeks, topic still under wraps.

I also co-host Virtually Speaking Science every second Wednesday. It’s an hour-long conversation between me and a scientist / science writer guest in Second Life, hosted in the Exploratorium’s virtual space and simultaneously podcast over Blog Talk Radio. It’s purely voluntary / a labor of love, but I really enjoy having these in-depth discussions with very smart people—and seeing how they design their avatars. My favorite (so far) was a complexity scientist whose avatar was a swarm of butterflies.

Where I work:

I primarily work from my Los Angeles townhouse in Silver Lake / Echo Park. I have a dedicated office upstairs, but sometimes will move around the house with my laptop if my writerly muse needs a change of scenery. There is a local coffee shop, but it is invariably packed with other writers, all working on their screenplays, at all times of day, so I tend not to go there to work. 🙂

Daily routine:

As a freelancer, I need to impose my own structure, so when I’m not traveling I have a pretty predictable schedule. I’m usually at my desk by 8:00 a.m. or so, Pacific time. I’m not really a morning person, so while I slowly wake up over the next couple of hours, I focus on reading my feeds and catching up on Twitter and other social-networking platforms, as well as email correspondence, invoicing, bill paying, etc. I tend to schedule interviews before 3:00 p.m.; this is also when I do more tedious tasks, like transcription. Much of my writing is done in the afternoon and evening, when I’m mentally sharpest and there are fewer interruptions. For really intensive (non-blogging) writing, I turn off the Internet entirely until I hit my target.

Most productive part of my day:

Late afternoon/early evening.

Most essential ritual or habit:

I need to work out regularly. I spend so much time in my own head that it’s refreshing to do something physical and work up a sweat, so most days include scheduled workout time—it’s too easy to skip the gym if I don’t make it a priority. Plus it’s a great way to clear my head and get past the occasional writer’s block. My specific regime varies, but I try to have a good mix of high-intensity interval training, weights, core work, and endurance cardio.

Another important ritual: unwinding with my husband at the end of a long day over a nice glass of wine. Sometimes by candlelight.

Mobile device:

iPhone and iPad


MacBook Pro, plugged into a large monitor.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Skype with Call Recorder is hands down the Thing I Cannot Live Without these days. Otherwise I am embarrassingly low-tech in my work habits and tools, but hey, it works for me. I use an Olympus micro-recorder for interviews if sources aren’t on Skype, and rely on my electronic calendar (synced with computer and iPhone) for scheduling. I compulsively make to-do lists for the week and invariably feel like a failure when I don’t cross off enough of the listed tasks. I mostly write in Word, although I am learning Scrivener for the next book, based on recommendations from other writers.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

The Internet. Although I also love playing computer Scrabble and poker, and solving crossword puzzles.

My reading habits:

For books, I mostly read in the evenings before bed, although if I am reading something for research purposes (books, research papers), I may take an hour or so during the day for that, too. Naturally, I read a good number of science books, but I am also a huge fan of history, murder mysteries, and general fiction, as befits someone with a degree in English literature.

Sleep schedule:

I generally retire between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. I try to keep that fairly regular when not traveling.

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