January and self-improvement have gone hand-in-hand since – forever. Physical health goals are the ones everyone talks about: losing weight, exercising more, and kicking bad habits. Mental health, however, isn’t talked about as often. Taking care of your psyche is important for everybody, but it’s especially important for creatives like us.
Art is all about making stuff in our imaginations (our minds) real. Art can be therapeutic, even spiritual for some, but pursuing it seriously (as a career or as a serious hobby) requires emotional resilence to keep our imaginations healthy and productive. Writers regularly need to tap into the worst aspects of humanity to fuel the conflicts that drive our stories. Just like the age-old warning about staring too long into the abyss, these negative emotions can infect us and wreck havoc elsewhere in our lives if we’re not careful.
I am not a psychologist. I’m just a random chick on the internet with close to 20 years experience writing and 30+ years living as a human being. Please seek professional help if you need it. But with all of those disclaimers out of the way, here are my thoughts on three areas of self-improvement writers can focus on in 2020.
Stress Management (aka Dealing with Real Life)
I’m sure all of you reading this has experienced what I’m about to describe at least once – the flow state. A place of hyper-focus where you’re only aware of the page in front of you, and the words pour out effortlessly. It’s the best place to be, right? It’s also the reason writer’s block sucks so badly. After all, writer’s block is just a difficulty entering that blessed flow state.
What I’ve noticed is that writer’s block always happens whenever my mind is crowded with real life concerns. If you’re burdened by stress, worry, and self-doubt, it’s hard to devote headspace to anything else. To let yourself go, stay in your imagination, and just write. It’ll feel like a waste of time. You’ll feel selfish and then feel guilty about acting selfishly. Having a set time every day that you dedicate to writing is a great practice to have. But if you sit down at your desk and all you can think about is your to-do list, the bombshell that landed earlier that day, or some future event you’re anxious about, then you’re not ready. Until those emotions are addressed, you won’t be ready.
If you’ve been struggling with writer’s block, stop thinking about it as the problem and start looking at it as the symptom of a larger stress management issue. With a fresh year and fresh start upon you, it may be time to have a long, hard look at the stressors in your life. What can you eliminate or avoid? What can you do to minimize the ones that you can’t get rid of completely? Attacking your stress at the source is the surest long-term solution to writer’s block.
In the meantime, you can try establishing mental decompression habits. Spiritual practices, like prayer and meditation, have always helped believers de-stress. Other people use exercise to clear their minds; gentle yoga or an easy walk would do. Personally, I’ve found journaling to be the most helpful for releasing negative emotions and finally shutting up my inner worrywart. If you’re someone who schedules their writing sessions, I recommend journaling for managing your real-life stress. It’s still writing. So you didn’t get to your manuscript today. That’s okay. It’ll still be there tomorrow.
Empathy is an essential skill for writers. If you can’t empathize with other people, you’re going to have a hard time writing varied characters. I talked a lot about empathy and its importance, especially when it comes to writing antagonists, in October. So if you’re looking for a detailed discussion about empathy’s place in a writer’s toolkit, go read that post.
Becoming more empathetic sounds like an impossible feat. Empathy is usually considered a trait that some people naturally have and others don’t. Thing is that naturally empathetic people are also naturally good listeners, and listening is a skill anybody can improve.
If listening is something you want to work on in 2020, there’s a simple key you can keep in mind. When you’re having a deep, heart-to-heart conversation with somebody, don’t say anything. Only respond when they ask you a direct question or for your advice.
Easier said than done, mate.
I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.
Curse you, semantics!
Would it make you feel better if I told you why this works?
You’re going to regardless of what I say because you’re writing both sides of this conversation.
When you’re not looking for your next chance to jump in with your two cents, you can pay attention to what’s being said. You get an unfiltered glimpse of what the other person is going through. In exchange, they get to feel heard, and a lot of times, that’s all they really want.
I admit, I’m not the best at this. Before I started posting weekly, my completion rate for creative pieces was close to zero. Even now, I’m finishing posts (including this one) way closer to my Friday deadline than I’d like. But I’ve adopted couple of guidelines to help habits stick for me.
First, I align the new habit as best as I can with when I want to do things anyway, when I’ve got the energy to devote to it. Don’t ask me to do anything important or be “on” in the morning. I’m useless before 10:30am. If I’m working on adding a new habit, I work it into my afternoon, when my brain is functional. I know some writers do something called Morning Pages. I’ve never tried that because I know I’d produce utter crap, if anything. More likely, I’d fall back asleep at my desk. The moral of this mini-rant is that you should pay attention to when your energy peaks during the day and leverage those peaks to do your most important tasks – the ones that require the most thought and effort. Whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or afternoon ostrich like me, you’ll have better luck keeping any resolution when you’re not fighting against low energy.
Second, I resist the urge to punish myself for failure or reward myself for success. Rewards take the focus off the intrinsic value of whatever habit I’m trying to establish. I’m making this conscious effort to do X,Y,Z regularly because I want to do X,Y,Z regularly for some intrinsic reason, not because I’ll get a cookie for good behavior. Also, habits are supposed to be no big deal. So act like it! Punishments make the habit a big(ger) deal, thus turning what should be a good, desirable thing into a stressor to dread. Acknowledge your failures but then get on with the rest of your day and do better next time. Having external accountability is great for encouraging you to acknowledge those failures when you don’t want to.
Do you have any thoughts on these subjects? What has worked for you? Is there anything I covered today that you’d be interested to see a deeper dive on? Please share down in the comments. Also, got better ideas for a bird mascot for afternoon people? Afternoon ostrich sounds weird, or is it just me?