Zivkovic, always a night owl, had a “circadian epiphany.” He was very productive in the morning, but wasted more time in the afternoons doing so much tweeting and online work that he was less productive in the evenings. “So by the time evening comes, instead of coming to the computer ready to write, I found myself too tired to start a new blog post,” he said.
Since he mostly works from home, Zivkovic decided to take some of the afternoon off, walk his dogs, or do things with his family. “Then when I come back at night, I have the energy to start a new blog post,” he said. “It’s quite enlightening what times of day you are efficient and what times of day not.”
But does Zivkovic ever sleep, given his Energizer-bunny online presence? He laughs: “I do sleep and more than people think. When I’m active, I’m very active so it looks like huge output, but it comes in bursts.” He claims six hours of sleep per night during the week but sleeps in and relaxes more on the weekends. “Nobody notices because they are not online either.” (During the NASW panel, another prolific night owl, British science writer Ed Yong tweeted that it was 1 a.m. in London and he was following the NASW “session on work/life/online balance at #sciwri11. Heh.” One tweeter retorted with a question along the lines of “Does anyone see the irony in that?”)
Time management has also been a growing challenge for the prodigious Pulitzer Prize-winning author, blogger, and tweeter Deborah Blum (who also has a full-time job as a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).
“It’s gotten harder because Twitter can be really addictive. I go on and find myself saying, ‘That looks interesting,’ so I go to links and read. It’s like a great news service for me but that can really suck up a lot of time,” she said. “I’m dealing with catching a digital tiger by the tale: more often than not I feel it has control of me. I’m sometimes a virtual Deborah rather than living a real life.”
Blum’s strategy is to work harder to keep mornings open for writing and use her social media time more wisely the rest of the day. “When I’m not a professor of journalism, I’m a freelancer in a medium-sized midwestern town,” she said. “To be more visible and connected, I have to spend time on social media. But I have to be strategic about using it and defining who I am on social media.”
Blum has found Twitter and her PLoS blog, Speakeasy Science, to be “hugely valuable” in writing and promoting her most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. Those platforms also give writing ideas and tips about strange cases of murder by poison that she might not otherwise have known about.
“I’m not getting a very good grip on social media yet,” said another panel member, Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor, Cosmic Log blogger, and author of The Case for Pluto. “I don’t have full control over it. But who’s controlling it? It’s me. Maybe there is something of an addictive quality to it.”
“There’s always a reason to spend more time at the office,” often until 8 or 9 p.m., said Boyle, who works at MSNBC.com’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Then, at home, he’ll usually turn on his computer or juggle his iPhone on his knee while watching television. But he does manage to grab more personal time on the weekends.
Other social media mavens at the meeting reported similar concerns. Freelance writer Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug and a Wired blog of the same name, is a frequent tweeter. “This is something I really have a lot of psychic stress about,” she said. “I drift to the computer early in the morning and fall into the Internet rabbit hole.”
McKenna, too, hopes to pare down her twelve-hour home computer workdays by adopting the strategy of turning her social media world off for blocks of time. “It’s simple when I say it, but challenging in practice,” she said.
The growing dominance of digital and social media has consequences not only for the lives of individual journalists but for the profession of science writing as well.
Boyle says that the 24/7 online environment “tends to make science journalism twitchy, which can be bad and also be good. Bad in the sense that the pace of keeping up with information and being so competitive that some may cut corners or not do the due diligence they should.” On the good side, “there are lots of people willing to weigh in as part of an interactive community.”