How to Survive 80 Hours a Week as a Hollywood Assistant – Part One

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Bobby writes:

What if you are working 80 hours a week as an assistant and you don’t have enough time to pursue you’re own creative endeavors? I’ve tried talking to my boss about less hours but he says he’s unable to lessen the hours. I get paid less than minimum wage and can barely afford rent let alone save money for the equipment I need to buy. Any advice?

Bobby’s question is written as one problem, which I will eloquently sum up as:

I have a Shitty Assistant Job (SAJ). What can I do about it?

Bobby’s question is written as one problem, but if we examine it, we see he’s actually conflating three separate problems. To find a solution, we need to untangle the problems. It’s like trying to fix an “unlikable character” in a script — you can’t just add a Save the Cat moment, you have to find the root of what makes him unlikable.

In this post, I’m going to break down the three problems I see Bobby’s having, and give tips on how to tackle the first problem.

Here are the three problems Bobby’s facing:

1. Too much time spent at the Day Job (“80 hours a week as an assistant”)

2. The Day Job is not a good job (“boss unable to lessen hours, paid less than minimum wage”)

3. Need to free up more $$$ (“barely afford rent, let alone save for equipment”)

How to Solve Any of these Problems

First, tackle only one of these problems at a time.

You can’t work on cutting down hours you spend at the day job while you try freeing up more money. That’s like telling yourself you’re going to start writing 3 script pages a day after you’ve signed up for the gym and told your wife you’re ready to quit smoking.

Think about when we write New Year Resolutions: we sit down, write a bunch of aspirational shit, then how much of it sticks?

(One year, I remember my resolutions were: learn to skate the snake in the Venice skate park, find representation, and finish 3 screenplays. Guess how many of those resolutions I actually KEPT?)


Then we blame ourselves: our will power, our motivation, our discipline. We tell ourselves, “I’m not the sort of person who can:”

  • Write 3 script pages a day

  • Free up 10 hours a week at work

  • Negotiate with my boss for a raise

  • Save an extra $400 a month

We all can do these things… if we take it one problem at a time.

First Be Good at the Day Job

I’m going to cover how Bobby can free up time at his SAJ, but first let me tell you something my friend said.

The other day a friend told me, “You know, I don’t mind my SAJ. All I want though, is to punch in-and-out. I don’t want to think about the SAJ outside of work. I don’t want to spend anytime on doing anything extra.”

I see the appeal in this.

But I’d argue it’s a short-sighted position. Here’s why:

The vast majority of us will spend most of our time at lives at work (whether it’s a SAJ or any other sort of “day job.”) We’re talking anywhere between 40 to 80 hours a week (out of 112 waking hours). On the low end, that’s still one-third of your life.

If you’re spending this much time at work, why not get fucking good at it?

The better you are, the more hours you’re able to free up. Once you’re good at your SAJ, things look dramatically different.

  • Instead of your boss riding you, he knows you’re on top of your shit

  • Instead of flailing about to look busy (you know what I mean: replying to a million emails or updating databases minute-to-minute) you do the 20 percent that actually matters

  • Instead of taking hours to accomplish the important work, you can do it in a fraction of the time

When I worked for three literary managers, I felt STUCK in the same position as Bobby — overwhelmed, tired, and like I spent hours just spinning my wheels.

The problem was I was spending those hours indiscriminately: there was zero focus on what was the most important use of my time.

Once I realized what was the best use of my time (hint: it wasn’t scheduling (and rescheduling) meetings!) it completely changed how I worked, the hours I worked, and my enjoyment of the work.

How to Free Up 10 Hours a Week at the Day Job

Here are two tactics to use THIS WEEK to start freeing up 1 – 2 hours a day. That’s 5 – 10 hours a week — even if you only used those hours to chill out, how amazing would that be?

(By the way, this is on the low-end of how much time you’ll create for yourself. What if you can free up 3 or 4 hours a day?)

Pick 3-and-1 MIT’s

What’s a MIT? An MIT is your “most important task,” which we can define as “what’s the ONE task, that if you accomplished today, would make you feel like the day was a success?”

Most assistants, (myself included, for the longest time), don’t have the slightest clue what their MIT is. We click “refresh” a hundred times a day, and let the inbox decide how we’re spending our time. We answer and roll dozens of calls, and before we realize it, the day’s over and we didn’t get a single thing done.

This week, let’s try something other than being tethered to someone else’s schedule.

  • Sunday night, spend 15 minutes and ask yourself: “What 3 things do I want to accomplish this week? If I only got 3 tasks completed all week, what 3 tasks would make the week a successful one?”

  • On Monday morning — before getting to the desk, before stepping into the office, and ESPECIALLY before checking e-mail, pick ONE MIT for the day. The one task that, if that’s all you did, the day would still be a success. Do this at the start of everyday.

For example, when I worked in literary management, my weekly MIT tasks could be:

  • Get a drinks on the books with a VIP

  • Redline a Publishing Agreement

  • Make one phone call to negotiate deal points on an Option Agreement

For the daily MIT, it’s important to get high-def, Blu-ray clarity. It’s has to push you towards your weekly goals, but also be manageable.

A BAD Monday MIT: redline pages 1 through 9.

A GOOD Monday MIT: redline paragraph 4. Purchase Agreement and 16. Reversion.

In any SAJ, there are bullshit tasks that have to get done. But by picking your MITs, you take control of how you spend your time between all that bullshit. You move your career in the direction that you choose. You move with purpose. You decide what needs to happen, and let everything fall in place around that.

Time saved per day: 1 – 2 hours

Make Fewer Decisions

How much of your time is spent making decisions?

  • What should I go back on with this deal point? With this number, or with this kind of language?

  • What flight should I book for my boss?

  • How should I create this “look-book?” Should I make it on in-design, or using powerpoint, or convert a word doc into a PDF?

  • Should I reject this letter now?

  • Where should I go to lunch?

  • Where should I go to drinks?

  • Where should my boss go to lunch?

Every decision requires time. One of the best ways to save time, then, is to make fewer decisions.

This week, think of one decision that you’ll definitely need to make again later in the week (or, even in the same day).

You can pick any of the above, or think of one relative to your job. Then, decide on a default response that you’ll always use, regardless of the circumstance. Completely remove the decision making process for that particular decision.

For example, deciding on where to go for drinks. How much time is usually spent in making that decision? You have to decide:

  • “When and what time?”

  • “Where?”

  • “How do I get there?”

  • “How much traffic is there gonna be?”

  • “Where should I park”

  • “Where should I sit when I get there?”

  • “What should I order?”

Instead of all this gyration, pick 3 places you like to go.

Choose locations that are close (or close enough), that you’ve been to before, and where you know the menu.

Anytime you schedule a drinks, suggest one of these three places.

Next week, pick another decision that you’re going to eliminate from your life.

Time saved per day: 1 to 2 hours

How Would You Use +10 Hours per Week?

By picking MITs and eliminating one decision this week, Bobby could easily free up 10 hours this week — and that’s just to start.

What could you do with an extra 10 hours this week?

You could:

  • Sleep 2 extra hours per day

  • Start a new side project

  • Or, reinvest the time into your SAJ to create leverage when it’s time to negotiate your raise, ask for less hours, or find a new position.

Next week, I’ll cover what to do if you’re stuck in a SAJ and looking for a new job.


Photo Credit: Bernard Goldbach

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