How to leave your writing stress behind

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Are you working too hard? Part of the problem may be that you’re taking too much work home with you. Here’s how to leave your writing stress behind….

My husband and I both have busy, demanding jobs (in totally different fields) and it would be easy for either or both of us to let concern for this work overwhelm our lives. One of the best things about our relationship is that neither of us brings our work home. Well, I work from home, so I guess I mean that metaphorically….

My husband had cancer as a young man, before I’d even met him, and I think that life-changing event taught him a whole lot about the value of being relaxed, not sweating the small stuff and regarding holidays as important. Without his influence, for example, it’s unlikely I would have agreed to take a month from work to travel in Australia and New Zealand, as we just did. That’s his picture at the top of my post, on the beach near the famous 12 Apostles site on the Great Ocean Road.

I’ve learned a lot from him about putting work in perspective and not letting it take up too much of my brain’s real estate. Problems, especially problems with people, can often be addressed only after a certain amount of time has passed, allowing everyone to cool down.

Problems with words also need time. In this case, it’s important to have significant incubation time so that the solution suddenly appears in our brains — in much the same way a crossword puzzle clue will make more sense when you’ve stopped actively thinking about it.

Writers are particularly vulnerable to taking their stress home with them for a number of reasons:

  • A lot of the critical “thinking” time associated with writing needs to happen when we’re doing other tasks. I like to walk to think about my writing and clients of mine mention other home-related jobs they like to do while thinking-about-writing such as, cooking, cleaning, gardening and grooming their dogs. But if you’re doing this thinking while performing household jobs, aren’t you by definition taking writing home with you?
  • The nature of our work frequently holds us hostage to the schedules of others. If you need to interview someone, particularly someone senior, you have to make their time work in your schedule.
  • There are so many people to please with writing. In addition to satisfying your boss, you also have to worry about the people you’ve interviewed, your readers and God help you, yourself. People-pleasing is one of the biggest obstacles to leaving work at your desk. The demands of keeping other people satisfied wiggle their way into our brains and make us fret and worry, even when the outcome is almost entirely outside of our control.
  • Most writing has a deadline. (And, if it doesn’t we usually impose one on ourselves or at least have a very firm idea about what’s an “acceptable” amount of writing to produce each week.) Failing to meet a deadline makes us feel like failures, and it’s hard to forget about that when work has stopped for the day.

Here are 7 ways you can do a better job of leaving your stress at your computer:

  1. Schedule all your writing tasks every day: My laid-back husband likes to call me “the lawyer” (and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment) for my daily schedule broken down by 30-minute increments. Still, I find that planning my day in this fashion allows me to feel MORE relaxed rather than less. The secret? I leave plenty of blocks of time marked as “catch up” or “recovery” so that if I need to schedule a last-minute interview or deal with a late-breaking client crisis, I can easily slot it in. I make this schedule every day, first thing in the morning. (Many experts advise doing it the day before, but I’ve never been able to manage that.) If your day is well scheduled and you’ve been able to accomplish at least 80 percent of the tasks you’ve set for yourself, you’re going to feel fantastic.
  2. Monitor your breathing while you’re working: Writing apnea is a real condition, and it makes us feel lousy. Many writers forget to breathe while they’re working and this causes their anxiety to skyrocket. It’s hard to turn off these feelings of doom even when you’ve stopped working. Avoid the problem by eliminating it at the source. Be sure to breathe while you’re working. And schedule some breathing exercises throughout the day.
  3. Transition before you stop work: Don’t expect to stop work on a dime. Just as runners do “cool down” exercises after running, writers too should develop a way of stopping work that will give plenty of signals to their bodies and brains that work time is OVER. This is especially important for people who work from home. Getting exercise is an excellent way to end your work day but here’s a more basic tip that will work for absolutely everyone: have a shutdown procedure. It can be as simple as powering-down your computer, or it can be more complex, like mine. My daily shutdown involves seven tasks (including tracking my day’s achievements); it takes me about 25 minutes. Finally, there is evidence that the simple job of washing your hands after work can help get rid of the day’s troubles. Really! Become your own Lady Macbeth.
  4. Control your email addiction: Email can take over our lives; don’t let it do that to you, especially when your workday has ended. Logging out of your office or business email account when you leave work will leave you less stressed during your nightly break and it will leave you with more energy for the next morning. Throughout the day, you should also consider checking your email only in batches, with the last batch of the day at 15 minutes before you stop work. Train your clients who might need to contact you urgently to text you instead. This will be far less disruptive than putting the onus on you to check your own email.
  5. Stop complaining: When I complain about something my husband likes to say, with a smile in his voice, “write a letter.” His semi-humourous comment reminds me that what psychologists call “co-ruminating,” usually doesn’t help very much. Amanda Rose, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri has found that getting everything off of our chests often doesn’t make us feel any better and may even contribute to depression. “We’ve seen that there’s a snowball effect where talking about your problems causes you to dwell on them, and dwelling makes you feel depressed, which makes you complain even more,” she said in one interview. Instead of unloading on your partner or neighbour about what went wrong at work, she suggests focusing on other people’s stories until you lose interest in your own.
  6. Get support from others: Instead of complaining, figure out potential solutions to your writing problems. Maybe you need some coaching, feedback on your writing or an accountability group.  There is no shame in getting help if you need it. In fact, it may be the smartest thing you can do.
  7. Forgive yourself: None of us is perfect. In fact, imperfection is the human condition. We can’t undo what’s done although we can learn from it. Instead of beating yourself up, realize you did the best you could at the time and focus on turning the page.

Life is too short to always be working, especially if you’re a writer working from home. Make some explicit decisions about how much of your time you’re prepared to spend at your keyboard and don’t feel a nanosecond of guilt for not doing more.

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Could you benefit from some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Consider my Get It Done program. Deadline for applying to this three-month accountability group (starting June 1) is May 24th. To apply, go here,  scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help PhD students deal with unwelcome questions about their dissertations. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you leave your work at your computer?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. To enter, please go to my blog (and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.) You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.