A Day in the Life of Helen Ouyang

Helen Ouyang is an emergency physician, a writer, and an assistant professor at Columbia University. She has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, New York, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and others. She was a 2018 National Magazine Award finalist. Follow her on Twitter @drhelenouyang.

 

Courtesy of Helen Ouyang

Helen Ouyang

What I’m working on:

I work full-time in a busy New York City emergency room. I write on my days off. Currently, I’m waiting for edits to come back on a feature story and another shorter piece, and in the meantime, I’m hunting for story ideas. The lull is often the hardest time for me, but I’m trying to be better at embracing the down time and just seeing where it leads. And to have more time to read.

Where I work:

If I’m not working in the ER, I go to a workspace that I pay for or a coffee shop in my neighborhood.

Daily routine:

I’m not very consistent. It depends on what time I went to bed the night before—whether because I was working in the ER or stayed out too late. Usually, I’m up by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m., and I try to go to my workspace or a coffee shop immediately. In the middle of the day, I’ll usually work out, often yoga. Then I go back to work until the early evening.

Most productive part of my day:

I’m not sure. I think I’m supposed to say before noon because that sounds like the adult answer, but it’s usually whenever panic sets in!

Most essential ritual or habit:

Exercise. Reading before I go to bed.

Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

For reporting, I use basic top-spiral reporting notebooks that I buy in bulk. Sometimes I record. I tried using a smart pen for a while, but I was always nervous about whether it was actually on, so I had to eventually abandon that.

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I don’t make to-do lists. I’ve tried before, but I’ve never been able to stick to them because I always forget they exist.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Scrivener and Transcribe.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Reading about people’s skincare routines. And, I guess, any online shopping—I hate going to stores! A few months ago I deleted Twitter off my phone, which has really helped with procrastination.

Courtesy of Helen Ouyang

My reading habits:

My reading consumption definitely leans heavily towards fiction. I pretty much only read novels before bed. My favorite book that I read this summer is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I’m recommending to everyone. Ocean Vuong’s sentences left me breathless. I started rereading Middlemarch, but I put it down because I just couldn’t wait to read Doxology. I usually have a nonfiction book or two that I carry around to read during the day. Currently, those are A Thousand Small Sanities and Our Women on the Ground. Then there are the usual magazines and newspapers that I try to keep up with.

Sleep schedule:

Again, this depends on if I was working late in the ER or simply stayed out too late. If neither has happened, I try to go to bed by 11:00 p.m., before midnight at the latest. A few years ago, I cleared my bedroom of all electronics, which has helped tremendously in keeping an earlier bedtime.

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