A Day in the Life of Emma Marris


Emma Marris
Emma Marris Courtesy of Emma Marris


What I’m working on:

I’m writing an Environmental Science 101 textbook for Roberts & Co. and I’m reporting on wolves for the new crowd-funded outlet, Beacon. The idea is to eventually turn my reporting into a proposal for a nonfiction book on wolves and wildness in the 21st century. I’m also working on articles here and there for other outlets on other topics: fig trees, ocean plastics, whitebark pines, and humility.

Where I work:

In a shed behind my house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. (It can be kind of cold in the shed, hence the coat in the photo.)

Marris and her husband bring their son Nico along to drop off our car at the shop, because he is home sick. The bucket is in case he pukes.
Marris and her husband bring their son Nico along to drop off their car at the shop, because he is home sick. The bucket is in case Nico pukes. Emma Marris

Daily routine:

None. Despite my attempts, routine eludes me. I have two kids under five (and you know, they are always home puking or off for a teacher-training day) and I always take on a little bit too much work. We have two old cars and they are always going to and from the shop. And until recently, I was traveling a huge amount.

My ideal routine involves getting the kids off to daycare, working productively in my shed for most of the day and taking a little break to spend time outside before clearing my physical and email inboxes and going to pick up the kids a little early so we can play outside before it gets dark. Does it ever, ever go down like this? No.

Most productive part of my day:

Like many writers, I used to do my best creative, sustained writing at night. Thanks to my understanding husband, I still make this happen very occasionally, even with the kids. It is a real treat to kiss them goodnight after dinner, pour a glass of wine, head to the shed, pop on some music, and let the words pour out.

More usually, I do logistics work in the morning—like invoicing and travel planning—dither and procrastinate in the middle of the day, and do my real work in the last three hours before I have to get the kids.

Most essential ritual or habit:

I am a list maker. I procrastinate by making very organized lists of all the stuff I am not doing. I find this very soothing. The illusion of control! Also, coffee. I make it in the morning with my two-year-old son, who can pretty much do it all: pour in the beans, grind them, turn on the maker. As soon as he can lift the carafe full of water, it is going to be a new house rule that you can’t wake mama unless you bring her a cup of coffee in bed.

Mobile device:

Green iPhone 5c. It’s green because I write about the environment, right? But then every time I look at it, I think about the environmental impact of all these semi-disposable gadgets and feel terrible. Feeling terrible about pretty much every consumer choice is part of the job description of being an environmental writer.


MacBook Pro laptop, a couple years old. Its name is Applesauce because my previous computer was ruined when some packets of applesauce exploded in my backpack.

Pretty pretty to-do list. So soothing.
Pretty pretty to-do list. So soothing. Emma Marris

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

I use Todoist (on the recommendation of Virginia Hughes) for those crazy lists. It allows you to organize your list by color-coded projects, which means maintaining the list takes more time and I get extra soothing feelings.

I use Paydirt to keep track of my invoicing. It costs about $15 a month, which is steep, but it has been very useful for me. I used to write articles and then forget all about them and never get paid. It allows you to make a list of clients, add jobs for each client, and then produces professional looking invoices (with due dates!) that you can email by hitting a button. It also allows you to track billable hours, if you are doing an editing or other by-the-hour job.

I keep track of my business expenses by tagging them on Mint, and I keep track of reimbursable expenses with Expensify.

My husband and I would be divorced without keeping our respective schedules updated on Google Calendar. We also have the official Seahawks calendar in there, because it is something I need to stay on top of for planning purposes. If I asked him to watch the kids while I did an interview during a game, it would be kind of uncool.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Um, organizing, I guess. Housework. I am too neurotic to waste time with something fun, like watching all the excellent TV out there now.

When I am caught up on work I like to … just kidding! I am a freelancer! There is no “caught up on work,” there is only “I could probably fit one more job in.”

I like walking with my kids and hiking and camping. I adore hot baths.

The chaise lounge, reinforcing the idea that freelancers lie around in their pajamas all day.
The chaise lounge, reinforcing the idea that freelancers lie around in their pajamas all day. Emma Marris

My reading habits:

I read research materials for work on the chaise lounge in my office. I do not do enough pleasure reading these days. This is a source of sadness for me.

Sleep schedule:

I am one of those unfortunate souls who really needs to get more like nine hours of sleep a night. I try my best to get it. The two-year-old who can almost make coffee usually wakes us up at about 6:30. This often means that after the kids get tucked in, I go right to bed, which is lame. But the alternative is that I am sleepy and cranky and when I don’t get enough sleep or enough food, my family starts calling me Captain Anger.


For the past few years, since my book Rambunctious Garden came out, a big part of my working life has been traveling to give talks about the book for speaking fees. I’ve been very ambivalent about this. It has been intellectually rewarding to meet so many different people and talk about nature, environmentalism, how to save the world. But I’ve felt guilty about all that air travel and its greenhouse-gas emissions. And travel is exhausting. Still, I kept saying yes to invitations, partly because I was flattered and partly because the money seemed good.

Then I went into Mint and relabeled everything I had for “income” as “writing,” “editing,” or “speaking.” I had predicted that talks would account for 60 percent of my income, but they turned out to be only 33 percent. All the writing I was squeezing in between trips and in hotel rooms was still two-thirds of my business.

This information, combined with signs from my kids that their theretofore-remarkable nonchalance about my comings and goings was beginning to crack, made me change my strategy.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that it pays to be scientific about your own business. Figure out what activities you are doing that make the most money per time, then combine those with activities that advance your career and those that give you pleasure in a mix that’s informed by real data, not just hunches.

I am saying no to invitations now and staying home to write, to try to find a routine, to maybe carve out some time to get the kids early and play outside or read a novel in a hot bath. That’s the plan anyhow. We’ll see how it goes. As my husband said to me the other week, “Your boss is a real hard-ass.”

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