The most important piece of equipment for a writer is their body (and that includes the mind). Think about it: Without a well-functioning body and mind, writing is impossible or at least very difficult. If you are sick all the time, laid up with repetitive stress injuries, or having other health issues, you don’t get as much work done. Between the doctor’s appointments and the time spent not feeling well, productivity goes down the drain. And if your mind isn’t functioning at its highest level, it’s difficult to come up with ideas or see them through to completion.
Like many desk jockeys, we writers tend to abuse our bodies. It’s possibly worse for us, though, because many of us go through periods where we sit at our desks for days banging away on that idea that just won’t leave us alone. We don’t quit our jobs at five o’clock and move on to other pursuits like many workers do. We keep at it well into the nights and weekends. This can lead to a host of physical and mental problems.
The solution is to take better care of ourselves. I learned this the hard way after suffering several repetitive stress injuries, gaining too much weight, and feeling generally terrible as a result. My work went in the crapper, both in terms of quality and quantity. I couldn’t work a lot of the time and when I could, what I produced was terrible. Fortunately, I was able to correct the problems. What follows are some ideas on how you can take better care of yourself from the get-go so you don’t end up having to correct problems that could have been prevented.
(Standard disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice. If you have specific needs or questions, get advice from a physician.)
Exercise. It’s standard advice for a reason. Exercise keeps every part of you healthy and helps to prevent disease. You don’t have to run marathons or endure grueling sessions at the gym, either. Walking, shooting hoops in the driveway, yoga, dancing, gardening, and other activities all count. You just need to get moving for about thirty minutes a day. Find something you enjoy and go do it.
Stand and move more. Research shows that sitting for long periods is terrible for your health. You’ve got to get up! Standing desks are popular but you don’t have to shell out big bucks. Most of us have boxes or other stuff lying around that can be used to improvise a standing desk. And move every chance you get. Walk around while you’re on the phone. Hang up a whiteboard and stand while you make notes. Read while walking on a treadmill. If it’s possible, walk to the coffee shop or library instead of driving. Look at your routine and find ways to do more on the move. Or at least standing up.
Get ergonomic. Make sure that your laptop, desk, chair and monitor are all at the proper heights/distances for you. You want to be able to work without putting strain on your back, neck, wrists, or shoulders. There are lots of articles that explain how to tell if you’re ergonomically correct, or you can hire a specialist to come look at your work space. Working with proper form can spare you from things like carpal tunnel syndrome, shoulder and neck pain, and back pain.
Invest in a great chair. A great chair is likely to be pricey, but it’s worth the investment. You want one that adjusts up and down and has an adjustable tilt for your back. Lumbar support is great, too, as is an adjustable headrest. Adjustable armrests can help you achieve the proper angle for your wrists.
Take frequent breaks. Push away from the computer every hour or half-hour. Set a timer so you won’t forget. Get up and move around, stretch, shake out your arms and hands, and get a glass of water. If you work from home, do a quick chore like taking out the trash or throwing in a load of laundry. Don’t just get up and go watch TV. Breaks give your body a chance to unwind and your mind a chance to relax for a few minutes. We aren’t made to sit locked in one position for long periods.
Use analog tools. Give your hands and arms a break by using some old-school writing tools like pen and paper. Writing by hand also forces your brain to think differently because handwriting is processed differently than typing.
Skip the snacks (or plan carefully). It’s tempting to go grab a snack on your break, or keep some munchies in your desk drawer. Watch out, though, because snacks can get out of hand. If you must have something to keep you going, choose healthy things like nuts or veggies and limit the intake. Avoid the leftover Halloween candy, chips, and other things that taste great but which will quickly pack on the pounds. (Besides, the ups and downs of sugar and carb rushes aren’t good for your brain.)
Eat healthfully. Like exercise, this is standard advice for a reason. And, yes, it’s easier said than done. Do the best you can to eat well-balanced meals and practice portion control. There are tons of free healthy eating resources available from cookbooks to videos. If you need specialized help due to medical conditions, you might consider asking your doctor, or hiring a dietician or nutritionist. (Some insurance programs offer a consultation as a benefit.)
Look elsewhere. Staring at a screen for long periods is hard on your eyes. You don’t blink as often, leading to dry eyes. And the constant focusing on close-up objects can lead to glasses. (As someone who’s needed glasses since the age of thirteen and whose vision gets worse every year, I can tell you that you’d really like to avoid this.) Look up from your screen often and stare out the window for a minute. If you’re thinking through a problem, look around the room or out the window instead of at the screen. Force yourself to blink more often (it becomes habit after a while).
Ease up on the caffeine. I’m not about to tell anyone to give up their caffeine entirely. As someone with an addition to diet Mountain Dew, that would be the pot calling the kettle black. But it might be wise to ease up a bit. Caffeine makes it hard to sleep well and can make you jittery. It can also increase your heart rate to scary levels and cause dehydration. Cut down if you can and cut yourself off in the early afternoon to keep it from interfering with your sleep.
Sleep well. Your brain doesn’t function well with little sleep, so do all you can to ensure a good night’s rest. Invest in a great mattress. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Take steps to improve your bedroom environment. (Remove or turn off electronics with lights, invest in room darkening blinds, use white noise if necessary, etc.) Cut down on screen time and caffeine, particularly the closer you get to bedtime. Yes, there will be times when deadlines loom and sleep gets neglected, but do your best.
Engage with the world around you. Not only is life experience valuable for stories and ideas, it’s also healthy to get out and about. Meeting new people, being at least a little bit social, and trying new activities are all great for your emotional and physical well-being. If you work from home this is even more important because you can go days without leaving the house or seeing another living soul. If you don’t have a group of friends you can rely on, get some forced interaction by taking a class, going to church, or joining a book club.
Find hobbies that take you away from the desk. Try to find hobbies that don’t involve sitting at the computer or staring at a screen. Video games are fun, but they don’t solve the physical problems writers face. Take up something like painting or knitting that use your hands in different ways. Or take up a sport for fun and exercise (you’ll be killing two birds with one stone). I really enjoy board games because they provide social interaction, take me away from the screen, and force me to think in different ways.
Keep your brain in shape. All of this healthy living will keep your brain healthy, as well, but you can go further. Do puzzles or play word games. Learn new things. Go to new places. Mix up your routine. Read, especially challenging works or work in an unfamiliar genre. All of this will make your brain more nimble and possibly stave off the effects of aging and Alzheimer’s disease.
Work with your body. Everyone has a “best time” for work and play. Some people are early birds, others are night owls. Find your best rhythm and work with it instead of against it. I know this is difficult if you have a real job with prescribed hours, but do the best you can to work during your optimum hours.
Deal with the stress. You can be both reactive and proactive in your approaches to dealing with stress. On the proactive front, do all you can to avoid stress in the first place. Don’t procrastinate and save work for the last minute. Get clarification on assignments early in the process before too much time is wasted on the wrong things. Don’t take on more than you can realistically handle. Deal with little issues and problems before they become huge. On the reactive front, you can reduce stress by exercising, meditating, sleeping well, and engaging in relaxing activities like coloring, listening to calming music, engaging in spiritual practices, or even going to therapy if you need to.
Try meditation. I am not a guru by any means, but meditation changed my life. And I don’t do it according to any prescribed formula or chant. I simply sit in a quiet area, breathe, and focus on turning off my thoughts (or at least turning the volume on them way down). It’s improved my concentration and memory, helped me deal with stress and anxiety, and generally made me happier. I didn’t believe in it until I tried it and all I can say is try it. It costs nothing and if you don’t enjoy it, you can quit.
None of this is new or earth-shattering advice. However, we all forget to take care of our number one asset at times and I hope this serves as a reminder and refresher course. Take care of yourself and you’ll have many more productive and fun years of writing ahead of you.