Self-Care is Fundamental to Your Writerly Health

I’m writing this blog from the end of the road, the bottom of the barrel, the length of my rope.  You see, I’ve been neglecting my most important asset for the last month: me.  I’ve not been sleeping well, I’ve not been eating well, I’ve been overworking myself, I’ve been skipping the gym, I’ve been pushing when I knew I had nothing left to give.  I’ve been on empty and there wasn’t anything for it.  I continued to plunge ahead.

If you stay in this business, this life, for long, you’ll find that this state of workaholism isn’t unique to me or something to admire.  It’s a kind of sickness that some of us get.  We forget to stop.  We get wrapped up in the work, in the thrill of the keyboard, the rush of a new project (never mind the old one isn’t getting finished because you’re spread so damn thin).  I’ve been pretty good to keep it at bay, but I met a fella recently who brought me some really special projects and there it was, peeping at me from around the corners.

So, my fucking friends, today we’re gonna drag this ugly beast out of the motherfucking shadows and talking about the thing we don’t talk about.  Because tomorrow it might be you, it might be the person you’re collaborating with, it might be your best fucking friend.  Freelancing draws a certain kind of person, they’re often quite intense and have quite intense reactions to life.

Workaholism and Burn-Out: Where We Are Now

I collapsed from exhaustion this week.  At my desk.  I am ashamed to admit this, but I need to own it because that’s literally the only road out of this pit.  If you’ve fought the battle against workaholism, you know what I mean.  You can’t pretend that you’re just really hard-working or that it’s just that you’re really interested in *this* project.

It’s a full on obsession with creation, breathing life into a world that never existed until you strung the words together like so many fairy lights.  But if you don’t own your shit, it will absolutely kill you and take everything you love.  Burnout is real, my friends, and it’s mighty unpleasant.  Mental collapse is awful.

I don’t know where the act of creation turns into the act of self-destruction.  There’s a line there somewhere… but it’s fuzzy.  It’s easy to cross over, it’s easy to get too deep into that and forget to eat and shower and take care of the basics in life.  That’s where you start dancing with burnout and all the nasty stuff.

American culture elevates work addicts and workaholism, but it’s one of the most dangerous compulsions you can possibly have.  Like with compulsive eating, you have to work, so you’re always sort of risking it, every day.  Is today the day I’ll slip?  Is tomorrow?  Am I already in a downward spiral?  These are the things I have to ask myself to keep my head above water.

Your Daily Self-Care Checklist

I’m writing this blog more for myself than for you, but I figure that if I’m having this issue, some of you are, as well.  I know a few of you are also serious workaholics and will hurt yourselves to make deadlines and so forth.  I once believed that was admirable, even something to aspire to, but time and experience have shown me that self-immolation isn’t sustainable.  Self-neglect isn’t cool.

Or, as I like to say to people who aren’t me, you can’t fill others’ tea cups from an empty pot.  In actuality, you can’t do shit with an empty pot except smash it and if you break your teapot, well, you’re in a lot bigger trouble than you realize.  So, step one and step two and step three hundred and fifty six is self care.  Every single day.  I made a checklist.  It’s for me, but maybe it’s for you, too.

Self Care Checklist

Shower.  Take a real shower.  Shampoo your hair.  Then put on something nice that makes you feel like a person and not a slovenly zombie.  Shoes, too.  Be fancy.

Breakfast.  Protein shakes and meal replacement bars are ok for breakfast.  Just do it.  Swoosh.

Meds.  Eat them pills.  They make you strong.

Exercise.  Every day.  Monday, Wednesday and Friday, take the dog for a walk/jog around the neighborhood.  Tuesday and Thursday, go to the pool at the Y and thrash about like you’re drowning.  Eventually you’ll learn how to swim properly this way.  Saturday and Sunday are for adventure walks with the whole crew.

Don’t skip lunch.  You do this a lot.  Don’t do it.  When the bell sounds, you get up and go find food.  Even if it’s a cookie.  Cookies can be lunch if there’s other good stuff with them.  Take the time to find the good stuff.  It’s good and it’s stuff, what’s not to like?

Dinner promptly at six.  Don’t eat so close to bedtime.  It just makes it hard to sleep and you really need good sleep.  You can always go back to writing after.

Movie time.  From 8 pm to 10 pm, sit and watch TV with the fam.  You deserve a break, you’ve worked hard today.  You work hard every day.  You work yourself to death.  Learn to let yourself have some fun to death.

Weekends are for exploring.  Stop working on the weekend.  That’s exploring time.  You need to figure out where all the good stuff is, but you can’t if you’re always working on the weekends.  Just stahp.

Get enough sleep.  You’ve been neglecting this one big time.  That extra hour you’re getting to work in the morning is literally killing you.  Your brain can’t function on six hours of sleep, it’s pretty evident from your heart rate monitor and general mood.  Sleep until you’re done, or at least eight hours.  Eight hours.  Zzzzzzz….

Above all else, listen to your inner Homeland Security Advisory System.  If you’re on Red Alert, you need to stop right the fuck now.  If it’s a blue alert, keep on keepin’ on my friend.

What’s This Work/Life Balance Everybody’s Talking About?

I’m about to posit a potentially unpopular opinion.  Are you ready for it?  Brace yourself.

There’s no such thing as a work/life balance for writers.  There’s only work, more work and less work.  We live in a world that’s either all on or all off.  You’re totally in or you’re totally out.  And that makes it nigh on impossible to really have anything like a work/life balance, even with a staff.  Sure, you might be at your kid’s ballgame, but you’re on your smartphone looking up information for your next article or you’re outlining marketing plans for the future or you’re searching for new clients.  The point is that you’re not really all in your real life — your non-writing life.

Instead you’re outlining, you’re world-building, you’re doing anything but living your life.  I think this is why the writing life is so difficult for us, and why it ruins relationships and why it fucking kills people.  There’s no stopping it, or slowing it down.  You’re just always on to the next project.  There’s no leeway.  if you’re on social media to keep up with real life friends, you’re also there performing for your audience.  You’re participating in groups with the hopes that someone will need your services.

Everything. You. Do. Is. A. Lie

Becoming More Present With a Writing Life

Although we tend to go tits-deep with the Writing Life, there’s hope for a work/life balance.  I know, I was shocked to learn this, too.

The truth is that the non-stop world of work is a fiction we’ve created for ourselves because we believe the task is so overwhelming it can never stop.  The truth is that we can and should take time off, slow down, spend time with our families and friends in real life and get out of the fucking house and get some of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D.

I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think — I believe — I have a solution.  Or at least some suggestions, so here we go.  I believe these tips will help you get a little balance in your life:

Give yourself permission to stop.  All of this, I think, starts with the myth that any small business owner needs to be invested in their business all the time, that every moment should be spent working your butt off until you die.  So, let’s start with that.  It’s fucking wrong.  You’re fucking wrong.  Do you hear me?  You’re fucking wrong.  You can run a successful business and still golf three or four times a week, go to your kid’s ballgame without second screening, have a fucking life in between assignments.  Give yourself permission to stop.  Do it right the fuck now.

Schedule regular and significant vacations.  Get out your calendar, bitches.  Schedule two things right now.  First, pick a week or two every four to eight weeks and schedule them off.  Do it now before you fill the rest of your schedule out.  Next, schedule a few days for overflow.  We all have those days where nothing comes together and we suddenly lose our precious days off to make up for that lack of production.  Go ahead and give yourself permission in writing to have both types of days.

Put the computer away.  On those days you’ve scheduled off, get the fuck away from the computer.  I find myself coming in here and fiddling with my calendar or doing something on my laptop when I should be decompressing.  This world is a pressure cooker and the only way you survive it is to go cold turkey.  That includes me.  Get the fuck away from your computer.  Run, don’t walk, on your days off.  Don’t even think about opening up productivity programs or looking at your work schedule.  I swear I’ll find you and cut you.

Find a non-digital hobby.  The way I was raised having a hobby was sort of a secondary or tertiary priority.  But the reality is that it’s not, this is something vital to living an enriched life.  Whether you’re a woodworker or a gardener or you fly kites or ride mountain bikes, you need time away from the computer.  Exercise.  Go outside.  Do competitive sports with your dog.  Anything, just do it in real life, even if you also talk about it online.

Bitches, burnout is a real thing, it’ll crush your heart and soul, it’ll make you feel lost and angry and bored and it’s hard — so hard — to overcome once you’re all in.  So, listen to me now when I say you need to get a little more balance in your life.  Everything has to balance eventually.

God knows you don’t want to find that balance after a mental breakdown and months of not working.