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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #63, with advice on how to resume writing after a holiday. The post first ran on Aug. 3/18.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today I’m talking about how to get back to writing after time off. Today, I have a question from reader Mary Anne Revolinski, who is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here’s what she’s asked.
“I’m wondering what tips you might have to get back into the writing habit. I had a planned vacation and shortly on the heels of that had a family emergency come up and frankly I’ve been struggling to get back in the [writing] group. Do you have any suggestions?”
Thanks for the question, Mary Anne. We’re in the thick of the summer holiday season in North America and Europe right now, so your question is very timely. I’m guessing that as I record this video many people are taking time away from their writing — sunning, swimming, hiking or biking — and, regrettably, some of them are feeling guilty about it.
Let me remind everyone that guilt is useful only in very small doses. It might prompt you to call your mother on her birthday or help a friend move apartments. But according to psychologists, research shows that most of us feel five hours of guilty feelings a week. Five hours of guilt every week. That has all sorts of negative implications.
- It makes it difficult for us to think.
- It makes us reluctant to enjoy life.
- It make us want to punish ourselves.
- It makes us avoid the task or people we’re feeling guilty about.
Rather than being remotely useful, guilt can actually harm our writing. So don’t feel guilty about taking time off. We all need time to relax.
Here’s something else to think about. Productivity researcher Chris Bailey tested the concept of long hours in 2014 by experimenting with working 90-hour weeks for a month. His conclusion? “Working long hours pushes you to procrastinate more, work less efficiently, and causes you to get less done, usually without you realizing it.” I’ve included a link to his blog post, below.
The bottom line is that taking holidays and breaks will actually make you more efficient in the long-term.
There’s just one thing you need to be careful about: What to do when you resume writing. After having done this myself for more than 40 years now, I can tell you that you need to expect that resuming writing will be a challenge. Don’t go into this expecting it to be easy.
First, understand that you’ll have lost your conditioning and that this is NORMAL. If you were a runner who just finished a marathon and then took off six weeks from exercise to celebrate, you would not expect to run another marathon right after your break, would you? You’d implement a training program where perhaps you’d start with a three-mile run and then gradually ramp up to a 10-mile one. After six months of this, you might be in shape to run another marathon. But you wouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to do it sooner.
Writers lose conditioning just like runners. This principle doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with breaks and holidays. Instead, you should simply expect and plan for this transition.
Create a modest and realistic plan for getting back into the swing of things. View your first day back as mostly a write-off (kind of like the first day of school or the first day of a new job – it’s all about getting “settled.”) Then, take a small and non-threatening first step to reintroduce yourself to your most important writing project. What this first step will look like depends on you, but here are some ideas:
- read something you wrote before your break
- read a small piece of research relating to your project
- write one sentence
- edit one paragraph
Even small steps count, like opening the document
Then, make a plan for the next four to six weeks. Make your early goals very modest — no more than 30 minutes a day for writing (and even five minutes is okay!) and ramp up these goals only after you’ve hit a comfortable plateau. Don’t try to write for an hour a day until you’ve hit 15 minutes — then 30, then 45, first.
Keep yourself accountable. Develop a way to hold yourself to achieving your goals. You might report to other people on your progress (family members and good friends are often willing to help out with this). Or you can keep a spreadsheet in which you note your expected tasks and then place a tick mark on them when you’ve finished them. Also, be sure to block the time for your writing in your calendar and then record whether you actually achieve it.
Give yourself some rewards. After all, it’s hard work to regain your conditioning. If your first writing sessions feel horrible and uncomfortable, be sure to ease the pain with something nice for having the stick-to-it-ive-ness to persist. You won’t need to continue to reward yourself for every writing session indefinitely, but go a bit over the top for the first especially challenging days.
Always stop on time. Much as I believe in priorities, however, I also believe in stopping. Work with a timer, following the Pomodoro routine, and ensure you stop when the bell rings. If you’re unfamiliar with the pomodoro, I’m including a link below.
Most of all, tell your Inner Critic to butt out and that you’ll listen to him or her later. Many of us derail ourselves when we listen to the bossy, nasty voice who likes to complain about our writing while we’re doing it. Actually, our Inner Critic is pretty smart and will have some useful suggestions when we’re editing. But this voice is counterproductive when we’re writing.
It may take you several weeks to recover from some time off, Mary Anne, but don’t let this stop you from actually taking that time off. We ALL need breaks to recover from the challenges of daily life. And if you get a good break you may be surprised to discover how much more productive you will become.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the late American journalist Earl Wilson: “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.”
Thanks for the timely question, Mary Anne.