Photo: Kajsa Göransson
New Year, New Goals. Like so many others, it’s my natural inclination to compose a long list of the things I want to accomplish in 2022. Still, given the unpredictability of our pandemic lives, I’ve learned to be more flexible because the best-laid plans can change in the blink of an eye. Still, having clear-cut goals motivates me and holds me accountable. My professional goal is to write the sequel to Sommaren på Nornö, and I have a first draft deadline of April 1st. In the past, such a deadline would freak me out, but I’m still aiming for that date since perfection out of the gate is not my objective. Developing the characters, setting, and conflicts into a workable plot that I can then tweak and polish will give me the momentum I need.
However, regardless of what I say, I can still feel the stress and panic building. When I analyze my book-writing state of mind, I realize I'm often anxious, distracted, time-strapped, tired, overcaffeinated, and grumpy, trying to juggle my family, my writing, and my social life. But it doesn’t have to be that way! I have to find a more balanced mental and physical approach to managing my writing process. This dilemma led me to research information about healthy writer habits, and I found an eye-opening book by Joanna Penn and Dr. Euan Lawson: The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term. The book discusses the emotional and physical costs of the writing life; the stress, anxiety, back/shoulder/neck pain, sleep problems, digestive issues, and weight gain, to name but a few, associated with this sedentary, often lonely pursuit. I can relate to all of the above (!) and wanted to begin the new year--and my new novel--with a plan.
Penn and Euan’s book provides practical tips and inspiration, giving me a framework to think about how I structure my writing days. I’ve incorporated their advice and developed a strategy to address some of my issues. Many of these points may seem obvious, but while I’m very disciplined when it comes to writing, I’m prone to slacking off when it comes to creating a self-care routine, mistaking time not spent writing as time ill-spent. Here are some ways I’m trying to live a healthier, happier, more sustainable writer’s life:
Six to eight hours sleep. I often wake up in the middle of the night and look at my phone, messing up my sleep cycle and setting myself up for a rough day. I feel so much more positive when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
Morning stretch. My lower back and shoulders are stiff and achy from sitting in front of the computer for hours on end. A daily or twice-daily, fifteen-minute stretching program alleviates the pain, but I can get lazy and skip it, much to my detriment, so this routine has become non-negotiable.
Exercise at least four times a week. I’ve never been an exercise fanatic, but I’m finally embracing it midlife, ha-ha. The mental and physical benefits are no-brainers.
Fresh air every day. It’s so easy to stay indoors and work, work, work, but your air and brain cells will eventually get stale. A thirty-minute walk or outdoor break will increase the amount of serotonin in your system and make you feel happier, sharper, and refreshed. In fact, I actually like the cold, invigorating Stockholm air. If that Arctic gust doesn’t clear your mind, I don’t know what will!
Limit caffeine intake. There was a period when I was drinking so much coffee, I wasn’t even sure it was working anymore. Plus, I began to feel jittery. Switching to herbal tea, taking a power nap, or going out for a walk is just as effective for me.
Power Nap. For the reason stated above and for the psychological benefit of taking a break with no pressure or expectations. Sometimes, I don’t fall asleep, but I never regret trying.
Healthy snacking. It’s so easy to munch on chips and sweets when I’m writing, almost as though I’ve earned the right to indulge in processed food, but my stomach always feels terrible afterward. Carrots, turkey slices, berries, nuts, fiber crackers, or protein shakes are nutritious, fill me up, and don’t irritate my stomach. Again, another no-brainer!
Curate my news, information, online, and social media diet. Trying to stay plugged in about everything going on politically, socially, and culturally is just too time-consuming. Better to focus on creating my own stories!
Break up my writing shifts. Working eight hours straight is not always the most effective. Some experts claim four-hour stretches are most productive, and I think that makes sense. Writing for two, three, or four hours and then going on a 30-60 minute powerwalk or a podcast/reading break gets my creative juices flowing again.
Time allocation. This means guarding my time and not feeling guilty if I say no—to family, friends, or professional requests. Overpromising only leads to stress and guilt. If I’m going to meet my April 1st deadline, I have to prioritize, and people understand if you lay it out in those terms instead of pretending otherwise and not delivering.
So far, this new approach seems to be working. I feel much more alert, enthusiastic, balanced, and productive, which I hope will be reflected in my writing. What are some of your strategies for optimizing your workday?