A Day in the Life of Sabrina Imbler


Sabrina Imbler Courtesy of Sabrina Imbler

What I’m working on:

As someone who hates spinning plates, I’m spinning many. Last week, in the Sunday scaries of a freelancing lull, I pitched a lot and am now doing my best to turn all these plates in, on time, to the various editors kind enough to deal with me. I’m working on some stories about a lonely moss, a squiggly fish, and a waterproof bug. I don’t have a specific beat, but my favorite stories are about the creatures and people we often overlook. The story I’m most excited about right now is an obituary of a cryptogamic botanist. I’m also writing a freelance guide to sleep masks for Wirecutter, where I used to work. I’m teaching a class about writing essays that involve science with the online lit mag Catapult. And finally, I’m writing a book, a collection of essays about sea creatures, but I have not touched it this week (please don’t tell my editor!).

I was laid off in June while on book leave from my job as a staff writer at Atlas Obscura. It felt like a media milestone—baby’s first layoff!—and even though I suspected it might be coming, it absolutely crushed me. It was my first full-time job writing about the things I loved, and I didn’t realize how much I had tied my self-worth as a writer to that job. It felt like I had made it, and then, suddenly, not.

Now I’m freelancing, and it’s not as bad as I thought it would be, existentially. But I’m also making a fraction of my old salary, which was not very high, on top of paying an exorbitant price for COBRA health insurance, which I am not using but feels nonnegotiable in a pandemic. My book advance paid me enough to take four months of work off for unpaid book leave, but it is not enough to float me for what’s now been six months without a salary. Freelancing gets easier every day, but I’m learning that an abundance of work, even for editors who I love, does not mean an abundance of money. So I’m also trying to get creative about how I can make freelancing more sustainable, hence the class and the sleep masks.

Where I work:

I live in Brooklyn, so I work approximately two feet away from my bed. My desk is a vintage secretary and my chair is a velvet armchair, a setup I imagined using for reading and crosswords before the ol’ one-two combo of a layoff during a pandemic. The chair is very hot and the opposite of ergonomic. Luckily, my desk is by a window, which looks out to an old brick building that’s currently being demolished. It is both nice and haunting to look out and watch how everything falls apart.

Daily routine:

I generally wake up when my cat sits on me, and I get up when he starts to yell for food, which is around 8:00 a.m. I walk approximately 15 feet to my kitchen, make breakfast and a big coffee, and walk back to my desk to start my day. I’ve never been a strict nine-to-five person, but in these pandemic days I’ve been clinging to routine.

Courtesy of Sabrina Imbler

On this morning in particular, I filed two stories (technically at 1:00 a.m., but thanks to Gmail’s schedule-send feature they landed in my editors’ boxes at a very mature 8:00 a.m.). I did a phone interview after breakfast. I try and schedule all my interviews in the first half of the day, with 30-minute gaps in between so I can eat and pee and be a human. It also helps to have a break when the interviews are for different stories, so your brain can adjust. I try and leave the afternoon free to dig into bigger projects. But for really big projects, like a book, I try to organize my schedule so I have an entire day free to work on it.

While waiting for edits this morning, I worked on my syllabus for my class. It’s my first time teaching, and I really want to do a good job, so I am overpreparing. After lunch, I sent a pitch that I should have sent a few weeks ago, sent some fact-checking questions over email to a researcher in Australia, and emailed an editor about potentially hiring a sensitivity reader for a story I’m working on. I want to hire the reader either way, but it would be nice if the pub covered the cost.

So much of freelancing, I’m quickly learning, is about protecting yourself and your work. Since June, I’ve also spent what seems like an inordinate amount of time reading and negotiating contracts, and texting friends about jobs or freelancing opportunities that seem exciting and learning about bad experiences people have had there. I am very conflict-averse, and it feels like I’m trying to rewire my brain to ask for the rights to my work, but I’m very grateful to freelance in the age of the writer Wudan Yan, who is an incredible advocate for freelancers and has saved my butt more times than I can count. Freelancing really forces you to understand and fight for your worth, and while it’s difficult in a lot of ways, I feel like it’s also taught me that I need to value myself higher and to settle less.

When I inevitably feel burnt out or stumped at around 5:00 p.m., I will take a break and work out while watching an episode of Survivor. I find Survivor so relaxing: the contrived challenges, the backstabbing, the robotic rhythm of Jeff Probst’s voice. I think I’ve watched at least 15 seasons since the beginning of the pandemic. Maybe in the future when there are gyms again, I will go to the gym. But for now it’s just push-ups and Survivor, and I kind of enjoy the primality of it all. I’ll have dinner after and, if I’m not too fried or if I’m on deadline, I’ll go back to work.

Most productive part of my day:

Whenever I’ve finished or gotten ahead of all the logistics on my to-do list and can sit down and write. My favorite time of the week to work is Sunday afternoon, an excellent day to go deep into drafts because the world is slow and no one is emailing you.

Most essential ritual or habit:

It’s very hard for me to work to silence, but I get easily distracted by music I like. So I do this frankly bizarre thing where I listen to one song on repeat all during my workday, to the point where I can anticipate where it swells and fades and it almost becomes white noise. I have a whole playlist on Spotify that’s just these songs I listen to on repeat, and they’re very random: “Blue Moon” by Elvis, “Boadicea” by Enya, the Uakti xylophone performance of Phillip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia. And at the end of every day, whether that’s 6:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (yikes), I close my laptop, listen to a new song, and something in my brain clicks that it’s all over, that I can finally unwind.

Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

I tape my phone interviews with TapeACall and type them up in Google Docs. I do almost everything in Google Docs, which I suppose is a learned habit instead of a chosen one, but I have faith in the cloud. If I’m interviewing someone in person, I’ll generally only record, no notes, so that I can be as present as possible.

I’ll put longer projects in Scrivener, which is a great way to pile lots of different kinds of files in a viewable folder. You can also view two docs at the same time (not side-by-side, but the opposite, top-on-bottom?), or look at two parts of the same doc, which I find really helpful to stay focused when a story is long or has begun to sprawl.

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I’m a big believer in checkable to-do lists, and I make long, luxurious lists in the iPhone Notes app with items as big as filing a story and as small as sending a follow-up email or thanking an editor. I believe in non-hierarchical to-do lists because they’re so much more achievable than very serious ones, and they also keep me from forgetting the little, human tasks that sometimes slip through the cracks, like sending a check-in text to a friend or picking up my farm share. It’s also worth it for the little squees of serotonin I get when I check something off, which builds momentum into a workday that basically consists of sitting in a chair in the same room I sleep in. The Notes app isn’t perfect, but I love being able to edit the list while I’m outside the house and on my phone. And I keep a list of all my projects and deadlines below the list to stay on track.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

I’m a recent convert of the Pomodoro method, which I learned about from a Lifehacker story written by the wonderful Alan Henry, who’s now an editor at Wired. I love it—you work in 25-minute chunks, and then have a five-minute break to do whatever. I use this Pomo timer, which appears as a tiny icon in your menu bar. It helps me stay on track; just looking at the little timer and seeing I only have 10 minutes left in my Pomo cycle will keep me from sporadically opening up Twitter. But perhaps more helpfully, it helps me keep track of projects that are going on too long. If a relatively small task has taken up more than two Pomos, it’s a sign I need to wrap things up. I also keep my phone on Do Not Disturb.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

A medium-sized fish tank on a table next to a nightstand with a plant on it which on its turn sits next to a bed.
Courtesy of Sabrina Imbler

My favorite way to waste time is the EVNautilus YouTube channel. The videos are so calming, with scientists exclaiming over the strange and wonderful things they see on the seafloor, from a hagfish in a sea sponge to a shy dumbo octopus hiding inside its own tentacles. Some people find the deep sea scary, but it feels very friendly to me, with so many squishy, gelatinous things. I also like to watch my fish tank and just zone out.

My reading habits:

Newswise, I’ll read shorter stories or features while scrolling through Twitter. But if someone I like drops a longread, I’ll bookmark it for later, to read over dinner or something. I’ve been saving the new Josh Sokol drop in Science for tonight! If there’s a feature I really like, I try to reverse engineer it for craft lessons, which is what Ed Yong says to do (and when Ed says something, we listen!)

I have a lot of trouble reading physical books for fun (maybe there’s a daily limit on how long you can look at iterations of the alphabet?) so I listen to audiobooks. I’m currently listening to the vintage lesbian classic Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule.

Sleep schedule:

I try for seven hours, no matter when I fall asleep.

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