Why you should sometimes take a break from writing and how to go about it
It is my goal to be an accomplished writer. I use this word deliberately: accomplished.
To me it says two things:
I tend to steer clear of the word “success” because to me it has become tainted. It is a subjective word that means different things to different people. Nowadays, it seems to imply a monetary connotation. I believe however, that there are more ways than money to define and measure “success”.
I am doing a lot to attain my goal. I write daily, I read a lot — especially my Medium examples and motivators. Not a day goes by that I am not working on my goal. I use all kinds of tools to remember or record and I work as efficiently as I possibly can. I could be publishing more, my Medium stats could be better, I should be building my E-mail list and author website.
But there’s only so many hours in a day. And I have other work as well. And other things to do — spend time with Husband, who, bless him, is in charge of our food intake (at least one less thing for me to worry about), walking our dog, do some housekeeping — such as it is (I am an extremely lazy housekeeper), maybe some shopping. What’s left of the day I have to spend relaxing. Not want to, have to. As a burn-out survivor, I have learned the importance of “down-time” and a decent night’s sleep the hard way.
Again, there’s just not enough hours in a day.
If I’m not careful, my goal turns into an obsession. I live with one eye on the clock already, trying to fit everything I feel I have to do into the day, ultimately cheating myself in the process. Because nobody tells me what I “have” to do. I tell myself. Since I have a goal to attain, I have to work at it. Every other article on Medium tells me so.
As a result, I constantly feel I am underachieving, that I’m simply not doing enough. “i should” turns into “I have to” , turns into “I must” . Before long, my goal turns into an obsession. Now what?
Do you recognize this? When you stare for a long time at a certain object, at some point your eyes glaze over and the object appears out of focus.
It can be like this with goals, as well. Focus too long, too hard and you lose sight of why you were doing it in the first place.
Whenever that happens, it is time to do something else.
Living your dream, trying to reach your goal, is hard work. Don’t underestimate it — it is actual work, often in addition to the work that actually pays your bills. In addition to household chores. In addition to spending quality time with your loved ones. In addition to your social life. And so on, and so forth. No small wonder, it can feel exhausting at times. Thinking about your goal 24/7, working at it every moment you have to spare.
Don’t underestimate the necessity for a break, every so often. Whenever you feel tired, overwhelmed, depressed — or worse — you’re bound to be in your own way instead of being your most productive self. A break can work wonders. It does not matter how your spend your down-time, just as long as you are enjoying it. Whether it’s a brisk walk with your dog or by yourself, binge-watching your favorite show, reading a book, playing a game, take your mind off of your goal for as long as you need to unwind.
Do not return to your desk until you feel truly refreshed and bubbling over with new ideas you need to write down right away.
To me, it’s the healthier way of achieving my goal, even though it may take me longer to get there.
There is a risk, however: what if you start enjoying your ‘down-time’ a little too much?
If you find you need more and more distraction, taking longer breaks, dreading going back to work, you might be in need of some structure.
Creating a structure that works for you
To me, “structure” equals “rut”, which I am all too comfortable with. As a consequence, I have spent many years trying to avoid any kind of structure. But if I am truthful, I must admit structure is exactly what I need as I have a chronic lack of discipline. I am definitely not one of those writers who gets up early every day and spend hours at my desk writing a set amount of words before calling it a day. I write as inspiration sparks me — which, in truth, is as unreliable as the weather (by which, incidentally, I feel strongly influenced).
It’s not the most productive working method, I’ll be the first to admit. And I am changing that, without compromising too much of my nature.
If, like me, you may find your breaks are taking up more of your day than your working hours do, you need to set alarms for yourself. Create a rhythm, a structure you can live with. Don’t be too severe though, for you might become obstinate and start ignoring your own alarms, which, of course, is counter-productive.
You may find inspiration failing you at your scheduled work time. What if it is your time to work, but you simply cannot commit? You find yourself staring at a blank screen or page, the words simply failing you. If you find you’re unable to write, do something else.
Just as long as whatever you’re doing has something to do with work.
- Make lists.
Get to work for as long as it takes to get your words out. When you do, at least there will be something there for you to edit the next day. Another task to put on your to-do list.
If, like me, you may at some point start resenting the alarm, and you can no longer manage to remind yourself you actually set these alarms for you, and that you set them for your own good, find another structure that allows for a little more freedom while remaining the work/leisure balance.
To me, a good rule of thumb is a break for every hour I spend at my desk. Dealing with The Change, it has become a necessity for me to get up from my desk every hour and move before I get too stiff and my joints become painful. I try to alternate my desk hours with household chores (the upside of working from home) or — better yet — garden time. These days we have a large, rather wild and neglected country garden, where there’s always plenty to do. We have a dog that is always up for playing outside, birds to feed, chickens to tend to. The upside of spending your breaks outside is, of course, the benefit of fresh air and sunshine. When you get tired, your desk chair will be right there waiting for a refreshed version of you, ready to get to work.
If you find you’re still struggling, you could give the Pomodoro time management technique a try. It may feel a bit arbitrary at first, but if you stick with it, you will find it really does improve your productivity. There is a multitude of Pomodoro tools and software available, but a good old kitchen timer works just as well.
Structure — any kind of structure — helps you focus better on your goal. Breaking up your day into little chunks of time, alternating work with play, will help you not only work more productively, but will make your work more enjoyable as well. It will keep you from obsessing and (unconsciously) sabotaging yourself.
This post was originally published on Medium in my publication Hearts in the Write Place on February 7, 2021.