This February, I’m talking self-care for writers. How can writers take care of themselves while writing, what practical tips and tricks are there to help us keep both our health and our sanity? In my weekly videos thus far, I’ve brought up the necessity of being clear on what you need both from yourself and others, and of setting conscious boundaries.
For today, I asked my own clients and some fellow writers from my writing communities about their practical self-care habits. Obviously, I have some tips and tricks of my own, but there are as many self-care rituals as there are writers, so I knew other writers would come up with different strategies. And they did!
While some of the things they mentioned were the same or similar (we’re all human and some stuff does seem to be universal), it was rather refreshing to read other bits of advice. Some of these I’d never thought about myself, and others I knew about but *coughs* don’t actually incorporate into my own writing practice (it’s so much easier talking the talk than doing the walking).
As I mentioned in last week’s video, everyone has different needs, so don’t go through the list and feel as if you need to make all of these part of your writing life. Just see what resonates and try it out. And, if you’re not convinced you’re in need of self-care too, please read Jamie Sands blog on Self Care 101. Jamie doesn’t only explain why we need to take care of ourselves, they also go deeper into why certain practices help us (I had no idea why being near the ocean makes me feel better instantly, but now I do!).
So here goes.
Set up your workspace the best way you can
Writers tend to sit still a lot (although more and more writers are using dictation software nowadays), and that makes it vital that you set up your workspace in the best way you can. The options are pretty much endless: these days, there are laptop standards, standing desks, ergonomic desk chairs, treadmill desks. I have a standing desk from Ikea, a desk bike designed by a Dutch company (so cliché, but we do cycle an awful lot…), a laptop standard, and an ergonomic mouse and keyboard.
Despite all this, I still have days on which my arms or wrists hurt due to too much writing or editing. Amy Tasukada is familiar with that problem, and told me she puts on her wrist brace at the first sign of her hand feeling ‘off’. Robin Coots mentioned the book Draw Stronger: Self-Care for Cartoonists and Other Visual Artist by Kriota Willberg. According to Robin, while the book is ‘aimed at artists, it’s great for anyone who works at a desk’.
Of course, to create an optimal work space, you need to first create an actual work space, and that can be somewhat of a struggle as well, as fellow writer and editor Emily Deady told me:
Something I was too lazy to do for a really long time was set up a separate desk space and make my desk ergonomics work for me. I hated sitting at my desk because it was uncomfortable, cluttered, and I eventually realized not private enough because it was in the living room. I’m really short and my feet never touch the floor if I’m sitting in a regular chair. Over Christmas, my husband helped me move it into the bedroom, and we cut a few inches off the legs so that I can actually sit properly. (It looks like a kids table which cracks me up but hey, it works!) We also put a very thick Brandon Sanderson book under the monitor so that it’s at the proper height. I’m in love. I’m physically more comfortable. It took all of an afternoon, no spendy purchases and I’m so much happier and focused in a room by myself. This has literally bothered me for over a year and I have no idea why I didn’t take myself seriously enough to do something about it. I think the biggest difference is really just knowing that this is MY space and I put time and effort into it and every day I get to benefit from that.
Almost every single writer who replied to my question about self-care first mentioned having water near them while writing. Except for Amy, who, like me, is a tea connoisseur 😉 I can’t imagine life without my thermos in reach (peppermint tea, anyone?).
Have sensible snacks at hand
Susan Wachowski keeps emergency bars at hand just in case she gets into the zone:
I keep emergency bars for those times I am writing and forget to eat and suddenly I have stuff to do but I am starving—a Pay Day bar works a treat. My family even knows the stash as the Emergency Pay Days and don’t touch them.
My advice here? Be more like Susan (and not like me—crisps, anyone?).
Resist the urge to write every day
It surprised me how many writers brought up the fact that they don’t write every day. We so often hear that we have to write every single day in order to make it as writers, yet finding the time and headspace to sit down and write every day is also one of the biggest obstacles and frustrations for a lot of us. Instead of setting daily writing goals, Tamara Ruth prefers to set weekly goals: ‘I don’t insist that I write daily because it’s unrealistic. I have a weekly word count I aim for’.
Robin doesn’t aim to write every day either, even though she’s well aware it’s one of the most persistent writing advices out there, especially in the self-publishing arena, where writing and publishing fast are considered the go-to strategy:
I know there’s a push by some to write like the wind, buckle down and get that draft done. To release fast and keep your name out there. There’s a name for what happens with that: Burnout. As much for my sanity as anything, I don’t always write every day. Some days I let plot simmer. Some are for housework. I try to spend time with my husband every day. Go for a walk with the dogs, go to knitting group once or twice a week. Watch a movie. Knowing when to stop and walk away from work can be harder sometimes than anything else.
Perhaps there’s something to say for not aiming to write each and every day? Of course, letting your plot simmer counts as writing as well. In my book, every day you spend time thinking about your story, whether that is while staring at your screen or not, is a day you’re writing. It’s not just about getting new words down. Sometimes it’s plotting, sometimes it’s filling out character questionnaires, sometimes it’s discussing book covers, sometimes it’s researching how long it takes for bodies to burn. It’s all part of the writing process, and it’s therefore all writing.
Personally, I’m a morning person. I get my best thinking done in the morning. That said, ever since I started working with international clients, my rhythm has been off and I’m still working on setting better boundaries there. I’m moving to a different time zone in two weeks, and I know it’ll become even harder to stick to my schedule, so this is definitely something I need to work on this year.
Sleep is the key, and recognising when I need to ease back on the schedule and let myself have an early night or later morning (you know, say, 06:30 or something spectacular), has been life’s most recent lesson.
Move that ass!
It can’t be a surprise that movement came up quite a lot as well, with all the sitting we’re doing. There’s a reason everyone is talking about standing and treadmill desks and dictation software all of a sudden (isn’t sitting the new smoking or something?). Some writers told me that they take walks, some lift weights, others stretch, for example by doing yoga, and most do a combination of all the above.
Ronald Denzel, fellow writer and writing coach, is also a nutritionist and health coach, and, for him, the ‘biggest thing is reminding my clients and readers to move more OFTEN vs just more’. It’s why he wrote this wonderful article, in which he explains how the Pomodoro method can be used to create a more healthy and productive writing lifestyle.
Befriending other writers and finding the right community
This is probably the advice I give to my clients the most, because it’s so important to surround yourself with people who understand you, and who will be honest about their own writing process when you’re about to get caught up in all the success stories around you. While it can be very inspiring to listen to these stories, the moment you start thinking everyone but you is doing ‘this writing thing’ in the same way and that’s why you’re not where they are, you invite unnecessary expectations and frustrations.
It’s like Tamara says:
Making friends with other authors, especially those with little ones, has helped decrease the amount of pressure I put on myself. I’ve become clearer in my goals, which results in less spinning and chasing of shiny objects.
Tracking your…whatever needs tracking
Depending on what you’re struggling with, it can be useful to track your daily or weekly word count, your mood, your habits, the time you spent on Facebook, your productivity, what you’re eating, and so on. It’s hard to break certain habits if you don’t have the proof of why we need to change it staring us right in our faces. Some writers use bullet journals for this, but others have come up with their own planners or spreadsheets to track whatever it was they were tracking.
K. Vale Nagle told me that it was tracking his productivity that, surprisingly, enabled him to incorporate breaks into his writing practice:
Taking a break is the hardest part for me, especially if I’m going strong. The only thing that really convinced me to have a hard stop + lunch + exercise time in the middle of the day was tracking my productivity in a spreadsheet. Twice a week, I was meeting a friend at the gym at noon. Those two days, I had better productivity in the afternoon, despite the lost time/imagined lost momentum.
Take a break
Taking a break sounds so counterproductive if all you want is to get your next piece of writing done, but as Vale showed by tracking his productivity, taking a break actually made him more productive. Obviously, there are a million ways to take a break. Amy loves her relaxing baths, while Susan makes sure she plans time with friends who aren’t connected to work or writing.
For Susan, taking breaks can be struggle, especially when she’s on a roll, so she doesn’t just plan to spend time with friends, she also lets her family know when to rescue her from her writing cave:
Make sure the family knows you need to eat with them, so they will be sure to check on you and let you know when it’s dinner time. I can seriously ignore the world when I am deep in the zone.
For MK Dawn, it’s spending her creative energy differently that helps her get out of writing rut:
I find doing other creative things help. Wednesday I was struggling getting words out. That evening, I helped my kids create their 100 days of school posters and felt so much better afterwards.
Relax, take it easy
I’ve been meditating daily since January 2018 and it’s made such a difference in my life. I’d been practising yoga for six years already at the time, but it’s really the combination that did the trick for me. I worry less about my writing skills, about how fast I write, about the things I write about… And I’m not the only using meditation or other mindfulness and relaxation techniques to keep ourselves sane.
Ciara Darren, for example, combines her meditation practice with Qi Gong. Laura Martone meditates as the characters she is writing about. Susan uses essential oils to set the right tone, and I know she’s not alone in that. Many of my writing friends incorporate essential oils into their writing practice one way or the other.
Dressing the part
I spent most of my days in my sweatpants, as most of my writer friends do, but I had a few writers tell me that they prefer dressing up in clothes that make them feel good about themselves. Like Ciara:
Putting on clothes I feel good in, even if they’re a little on the dressed-up side. I’m not one of those people who gets a lot of work done in a bathrobe. That said, it takes me five minutes to dress and do my hair, and I bought those clothes at a second-hand shop, so if I do spill coffee or the cat gets insistent…no guilt!
Personal hygiene was also a topic that came up. Susan, for example, keeps a bathroom kit with toothpaste and a brush, deodorant, mouthwash, and face cloths nearby so she can take breaks from writing to refresh herself.
Last, I want to share this particular bit of advice from Laura, who takes a positive, as-if-it’s-true self-talk walk every single day to boost her self-confidence and battle her perfectionism. I’m all about rooting out negative self-talk; it’s one of, if not the most, counterproductive practices there is and it’s rooted so deeply in so many of us.
I’ve never had a client who isn’t struggling with some form of negative self-talk, and it’s one of the reasons I adapted a limiting belief exercise I’d came across in a book, to help them let go of any negative beliefs about writing and create more productive and positive beliefs. If you want to try this exercise for yourself, and I highly recommend it, you can find it here.
I’m so grateful Laura decided to share her self-talk with us, as I think we can all benefit from it:
I am an amazing, creative writer who writes every day. Every time I write, I desire to write more. Writing is the ideal form of expression for me. I always speak my truth – I always know the right words to say and write. Writing is my passion, my calling, my purpose, and my joy—it is also my job—it is simply what I do. And my highest purpose as a writer is to entertain, educate, and inspire people with my words and stories. I am a successful writer and author. I am confident in my skills, abilities, and work. I am grateful for my passion for storytelling and proud of my writing and editing abilities. I am proud of myself and my accomplishments. I am comfortable with my writing process. I feel no pressure. I accept approval and encouragement, especially from myself. I know when the work is good enough, and then I let it go. I strive for progress, not perfection. I could be better, but I’m good enough, and my work could be better, but it’s good enough. It’s good to know when enough is enough.
I hope this list will offer you inspiration and encouragement, and if you have a self-care ritual you want to share, please leave a comment.
(The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, which means I receive a small percentage if you buy through these links.)