Writing and Health Balance

Write. Write every day. Write to meet your goals.

These are good rules. In 99% of cases I fully endorse these rules. But like most rules, there is an exception, and here it is:

Do not sacrifice your health to write.

I learned this the hard way. I set a writing goal and was hell-bent on making that word count. My real life was very busy, so I cut some corners to meet my goals: I stayed up late. Woke up early. Quit hiking and biking and all those non-writing activities. Ate a lot of prepackaged, instant food to avoid wasting time cooking. I got 2/3 of the way to my goal.

Then I got catastrophically sick.

About five weeks later, I was able to get back on the computer again.

Looking back, it really wasn’t a surprise. I was eating garbage, much of which contained foods I know make me sick. I wasn’t exercising, because even going for a walk was “a waste of time when you could be writing.” In order to meet my goals, I was cutting down on my sleep and substituting coffee. The end result? I ruined my health, leaving my body with no reserves to protect it against illness. Over the long term, I was less productive.

Take a good hard look and be honest with yourself. A lot of us have bad habits where we skimp on writing time to watch TV or play video games or otherwise goof off. Some of us, though, never watch TV or video games, because we’re too busy pushing ourselves towards our goal at every waking moment. If you never have downtime to relax and recharge, you’ll end up in trouble. You’ll probably be more successful in the short term than the person who does little–and then you’ll burn out, and fade away.

Make sure your desk chair and keyboard are set up in a way that won’t cause long term muscle strain. Look away from the screen every ten minutes to prevent eye strain. Most writers log a lot of hours at their computers, and repetitive stress injuries can leave you out of action for a long time. One of my resolutions this year is to visit my massage therapist on a more regular basis, not wait until I have pain keeping me up all night. If you do get an injury, give yourself the time to rest and recover, rather than compounding the damage by writing through the pain.

Similarly, if you’re too sick to read or watch TV, you’re probably too sick to write. Don’t drag your laptop into bed to try to meet that quota; you’ll only prolong your illness if you don’t take proper care of yourself. Don’t lace yourself up with painkillers to do something your body is trying to warn you will damage it further. Rest, recover, and pick up where you left off once you’re feeling healthy. If you don’t take care of the body which you inhabit, you won’t be able to write for as long as you probably want to.

If you feel that you spend too much time cooking, there are other solutions than eating instant meals each night. Make double portions in your crock-pot, casserole, or wok; then you will have leftovers that you can keep in the fridge for later in the week, or freeze for a fast meal down the road. Pre-bagged coleslaw is usually more expensive than a head of cabbage but for me it’s worth it for the time I save shredding that cabbage by hand. The time I spent online looking for healthy recipes that I can prepare in half an hour or less has been more than worth it, knowing that I no longer have to calculate 60 minutes or more to make a nutritious dinner.

Sleep and exercise are not optional activities. If you aren’t properly rested, you won’t be functioning at your best. If you don’t exercise, your endurance will go into the toilet, and you’ll wear yourself out just getting around your apartment. Your body is a critical part of your writing toolbox; you need to maintain it.

We’ve all stayed up late to meet a deadline or finish a project, but living in a permanent high-stress environment will ruin your health long-term. When you’re calculating your goals, make sure you’re allowing yourself enough time to sleep adequately, eat healthily, exercise regularly, relax occasionally, and recover from unexpected illnesses or injuries. Taking proper care of yourself will help ensure that your writing career will span decades, not just years.

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