On Prioritizing and HBO’s Girls

girls03In April 2012, HBO’s show Girls premiered to much fanfare. Girls follows four female twenty-somethings in New York: Hannah Horvath, Marnie Michaels, Jessa Johansson, and Shoshanna Shapiro. Created and starring Lena Dunham, who also serves as head writer and co-showrunner, the show launched a thousand think pieces, and it’s been both lauded with praise and sharply critiqued.

I have seen every episode of Girls, and the truth is, the show can be pretty painful to watch. Girls is excessive, revealing, and even grotesque. The characters are self-obsessed and unlikable and unrealistic–and that’s precisely the point. In any case, the show is using is its criticism as fodder, and that’s what keeps me watching week after week.

In Sunday’s episode, “Free Snacks,” Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, scores a job at GQ. The catch, however, is that the position is in the advertorial department, which means she’s tasked with developing sponsored content–in this case, a section entitled “A Field Guide to the Urban Man” for Neiman Marcus. As one character puts it, it’s “one of those sections where it looks like a real article so they trick you into reading it, but then you find out it’s a paid advertisement, so it’s both morally and creatively bankrupt.”

On her first day at GQ, Hannah is successful at a pitch meeting and is recognized for her ideas by her department head. Perhaps most crucially, though, she discovers the snack room. In her words: “You just said snack room, and everything blurred.” And upon learning that the snacks are free of charge for all employees, Hannah is in utter disbelief: “It’s free? You’re saying all of this is free? Even the Sun Chips? Even the Clif bars? Even the lox?”

But when Hannah is praised for her contributions, she tells her co-workers she doesn’t want to make a name for herself because this is just a temporary role. She’s a “writer writer, not, like, a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.” And surprise! So are her co-workers! One’s a Yale Series of Younger Poets winner, another was published in n+1, and another in The New Yorker, and yet they’re still at GQ, years later, in the advertorial department–there’s healthcare, dental, job security, and corporate gym access, and it keeps them coming in day after day.

Which, of course, leaves Hannah reeling and nearly results in her leaving the position. Her co-worker attempts to console her, claiming, “You know, you can still be a writer and do this job, you just gotta maintain your focus, you know? Write every night after work. Nights and weekends. I sort of lost focus in the last year or two, but it’s doable.”

So, Hannah, in earnest, gives it a try. “I’m doing this new thing where I write every night for three hours after work!” she proclaims to Adam, her boyfriend. And in the episode’s final scene, Adam wraps Hannah in a blanket on the couch, where she’s fallen asleep, laptop in her arms, right after proclaiming her resolve to write every night, no matter what.

As painful as it is to admit, that scene felt a little too real. In the 8 months that I’ve been working, I’ve realized just how much stamina and dedication it requires to commit yourself to something–anything, for that matter–after clocking out. You do lose focus when you stare at a screen for 8+ hours, and it can be difficult to commit beyond what’s expected of you.

When I first graduated, I thought I’d find time more time to read and write and run and cook when I started working. Instead, I’ve learned an important lesson in how to plan and prioritize. On an ideal day, I’d wake up with enough time to read the newspaper and the blogs that I follow and pack a healthy lunch; I’d get home from work, squeeze in a workout, cook something or enjoy a meal out with friends, write a blog entry, study for the GRE, clean my apartment, do laundry, read a book or an article, and still make it in bed early enough to wake up well-rested. And the reality is that I can’t have it all, I can’t accomplish it all each day, and I shouldn’t make that an expectation.

Last week, a friend of mine asked me how I manage household maintenance while still going about my everyday routine. I don’t have it down to a science, but each Sunday, I take out my planner and I try to account for my evenings for the week ahead. I try to set priorities and manage my expectations. Sure, I did this in college, but now, I’m not working with deadlines and due dates. The stakes feel higher because I’m working to establish habits that will ensure my well-being, both professionally and personally. If I fail to get in a load of laundry, I’ll have to scramble later to wash my underwear before I run out; if I don’t find time for a yoga class, I won’t feel my best, and my health will suffer. And if I don’t contribute in a meaningful way at work, there’s certainly another candidate somewhere that can. The consequences feel even more real, and the responsibility is all my own.

That said, though, I’m still learning. There are weeks where I don’t get around to mopping or vacuuming. Sometimes I put off grocery shopping or fail to make it to the gym. And there are certainly Friday nights where I’d rather stay in with take out and catch up on The Colbert Report than venture out.

So, is it realistic right now to force myself, like Hannah tried, to write every night? No, because sometimes there are clothes to be washed, dishes to be cleaned, and bills to be paid.  Is it possible to accomplish every single item on my to-do list every single night? Maybe for others, but not for me. And I’m okay with that.

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