Kind of a short one today—I have a long to do list ahead of me!

I’m getting close to the end of this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Though meant as advice for writers, it’s struck me over the past few weeks that this list can just as easily be applied to any occupation, or as general life advice. This week, we’ll look at the ninth commandment in that light—not as how to write better or to be a more productive author, but to point us all in the direction of that elusive work/life balance, starting with Henry Miller’s advice to:

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

The Program, as he described it, is broken down in Part 4 of this series, and you can click back to that here for a refresh, if necessary.

I am a to do lister, and pretty much always have been. Though I’ve read all the advice on why to do lists are bad, that they tend to be un-doable and so only provide a source of guilt, or contain too many little busy work/work avoidance task so that checking them off seems like “work,” but isn’t . . . I know all that. And in an effort to combat either unrealistic expectations or unreal work, I’ve massaged my to do list schemes over and over again until I’ve ended up with something that sort of works.

And let’s be honest, all you can really ever achieve is “sort of works.”

The Apollo program sort of worked. American democracy sort of works. Every computer on Earth sort of works. Why do I need to hold my to do list to a higher standard?

This is, I think, part of what Henry Miller is trying to tell us with this bit of advice. Though he had a fairly well thought through program, with things to be done in the morning, afternoon, and evening, here he’s telling us it’s okay if we occasionally fall off the wagon, or take a day off, or fail to get to an item or two. If there’s a day when we haven’t completed all the work (whether that’s writing or accounting or selling insurance or building houses) we planned to do that day, well . . . tomorrow is a new day. Get back up on that horse and get back to work.

My own to do list, which exists primarily as a Stickies window off to the left side of my computer screens, is a fluid thing. If I don’t finish all of the seven items on it for today that follow “FAH Post,” which I’m working on now, those items will be pushed to tomorrow, and so on, until I get to my standard weekend to do list item: “Catch up on any unfinished work.”

That having been said, I do beat myself up a bit when those items aren’t all completed, and sometimes end up revising the whole to do list somewhere mid-week, reprioritizing to shift maximum work to one urgent project that will clear the decks for other things next week. This process feels a lot like what Henry Miller was trying to say with:

Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

And again, this advice works just as well for my “day job” work as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor as it does for my own writing.

In my own list of commandments, post-Henry Miller, I’d rewrite this as:

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

Boy, that feels easy. Almost too easy. But it really is that easy.

Every morning I like to pause, look at my to do list and calendar, and put a few minutes’ thought into what today’s biggest priority really is. Sometimes that’s multiple smaller projects, sometimes it’s one big desk-clearing uber-project. Whatever today brings, look at your version of this Program as an achievable goal, but in the same way that we can give ourselves permission to write a short, bad book, we can give ourselves permission to have a short, bad work day—to be revised with intent tomorrow!


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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