A Day in the Life of Emily Willingham


Emily Willingham
Emily Willingham Courtesy of Emily Willingham

What I’m working on:

I just finished teaching a summer graduate writing class and a summer anatomy class, so right now, I’m working on catching up with other projects, including answering these questions. I’ve been busy the last few months with the publicity related to the book I coauthored with Tara Haelle, The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First 4 Years, which has involved a lot of well-spent time. I’ve also somehow wandered into an extremely fun sideline as book reviewer and have done reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and some other outlets. My bread-and-butter remains squarely in science writing and editing, which takes up several hours of each day. I’m getting ready to move a project to the front burner: digging into more research on the “yellow rain” controversy. I obtained access to thousands and thousands of pages of classified files related to “yellow rain” in East Asia and a health mystery among Hmong immigrants to the United States with some intriguing sidelines involving a highly respected biochemist, a misconstrued table that becomes the core of a huge international story, and the difficulty finding out the real intentions of people who are no longer with us. It’s tangled and mysterious in some glorious ways, and I can’t stop thinking and reading about it.

Where I work:

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and work from the front room of my home when I’m not in my classroom.

Daily routine: 

Summer has derailed routine, but during the school year, on weekdays, I’m up at 6:53. I waken my oldest son, get my coffee, and then drive him to his 7:30 bus. I drive back home, waken my other two children, leave at 7:50, and drive them to the carpool meetup, from which I drive carpool myself 2 to 3 days a week. I usually have morning classes at 8:00 a.m. or 9:25 a.m. that I teach, ending by noon. I then go home, and for 20 minutes I get my precious “me” time: eating lunch (always leftovers—eating leftovers is my job, apparently) and reading something published in the 19th century.

InformedParentCoverOnce that’s done, I sit down at my laptop and begin one of three jobs: Curating newly published medical research and writing about it, editing scientific papers, or writing an assigned piece or something of my own devising. Occasionally, I’ll pitch something, but my plate is usually full enough. Here and there, I answer student emails. At about 3:00 p.m., I start driving the mom taxi, doing carpool and school pickup, driving to lessons, picking up from after-school sports, driving to appointments. At about 7:00, I feed my offspring. When my partner arrives from work, we get coffee and walk, and by about 8:00 p.m., I’m back at my laptop working: editing, wrapping up writing, prepping lectures for the next school day, grading. My partner and I usually eat at about 10:00 p.m. while watching a TV show with our sons. Invariably, at approximately 11:00 p.m., my oldest son becomes confidential and conversant, and what parent is going to let that slide by? So I put everything aside and chat with him. When that’s done, I wrap up whatever work must be done that day. A couple of times a week, this is also the time that someone remembers some huge project requiring some item that’s not available in the home, which said someone is required to problem-solve on their own. I’m usually in bed by midnight, and the whole thing begins again the next day at 6:53.

Most productive part of my day:

It depends on how one defines productive. I’m a productive teacher when I’m teaching, I hope; a productive writer and editor in those windows of time between my other responsibilities; and a productive parent and partner all the other times. It’s when one of those responsibilities pushes into time territory assigned to another that productivity fails, and that’s really unpredictable. The only predictable thing in our house is the dog, and even she occasionally derails productivity by having yet another skunk encounter at just the wrong time. Which is any time, really.

Most essential ritual or habit:

Those 20 minutes I get to just read while I eat my lunch. That, and walking out for coffee every evening with my partner. That’s our “date” half hour, and we have it every single night.

Mobile device:



Willingham standing on top of a bunker at Fort Baker in San Francisco. Emily Willingham

Mac. I have issues with all of them.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

I can’t do my editing without Word because that’s just what’s required. I’m otherwise not someone who has a lot of fancy systems. I don’t believe in spending time setting up complicated organizing systems when dumping things into a folder (or a physical box) I can search works as well.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Social media, of course. But I try to curb it to specific times of day or set it as a sort of five-minute downtime to earn once I’ve completed a project or hit a deadline.

My reading habits:

I read all day, everyday. For pleasure, though, I get a little news reading in on my phone here and there, my 20 minutes of literature at lunch, and whatever time I can eke out when I go to bed, which depends entirely on how long I can keep my eyes open. The usual range is 2 to 10 minutes. In other words, what once was a book-a-day reading habit has become much more fractured and limited with all of this adulting. Enjoy it while you can, kids!

Sleep schedule:

Midnight-ish to just before 7:00 a.m., when forced. When on my own? 2:00 a.m. to about 9:00 a.m. I also have a health issue that is associated with deep fatigue, so when I really, really have to, I’ll take a midday nap instead of doing the work I need to be doing. I have to recognize when the costs are outweighing the benefits on that one.

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