When I first started freelancing, I burned out with alarming regularity.
In those early days, I was working part-time at a desk job, part-time as a waitress, and picking up an increasing number of freelance clients as I built my business.
The way I took breaks was by running as hard as I could into my own mental wall until I was too exhausted to work anymore. Then my body shut me down by getting sick.
It took more of these mental meltdowns then I’d like to admit to get me to think about adding regular self-care into my life.
But eventually, I got the message.
At this point in my life, self-care and time management are becoming an obsession as I realize taking care of myself lets me get more done while living a more-balanced life.
Self-care: Because your writing brain needs to breathe
It’s been months since I’ve had a major meltdown, but I still have a lot to learn. That’s why I called Ken Scholes.
Scholes is a writer with whom I’ve taken several classes. He wears a lot of creative hats as an award-winning fantasy author, musician, consultant, and father. Throughout his creative endeavors and all the curveballs life has thrown his way, Scholes’s commitment to self-care has always really struck a chord with me.
While for years I’ve viewed taking care of my own needs as a secondary to getting the work done, Scholes told me adamantly over coffee that working on your own issues come first.
“[Authors and writing instructors] Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith told me at a workshop once that if you want to fix the problems in your writing life, you need to address the problems in your personal life,” he said. “The part of me that tells stories is the same part of me that solves complex problems. You can’t write a detective novel about solving a murder when you’ve got a murder to solve in your living room.”
Time is one of the most precious resources any of us have. And that feeling of time scarcity is what had led me to slot self-care firmly on the bottom of my list of priorities.
How could I possibly waste time going for a walk, reading a novel, or — heaven forbid — goofing off when there was so much work to be done?
But wasn’t my refusal to take time for myself just creating time-consuming health problems, not to mention stifling my writing?
How should we, as writers, create a foundational practice of self-care?
First, understand that writing requires mental and physical space
I can tell when I’m rushing through a project, whether on a piece of fiction or an assignment for a client.
My prose and ideas will seem shallow. Uninspired. Not only that, but my satisfaction with my work takes a hit because I know I could be doing better.
Writing is hard mental work, and it requires a certain amount of space to be done well, said Scholes. “Going for a walk is writing,” he said. “Doing the dishes is writing. Sitting and talking with another writer about self-care is writing. It’s not just creating words, it’s creating the space in your head for story to emerge, that Goldilocks belt where life sparks up. It’s way more than typing words because you have no words to type if you have not lived any life.”
For Scholes, that means both a mental space free from distraction, and also a physical space free from clutter. “If you have a clutter you’re living in, then everything becomes urgent and you can’t find anything important,” he said. “Reducing clutter becomes a part of that self-care.”
Schedule time for play
Procrastination expert Neil Fiore suggests in his book The Now Habit that people who schedule playtime are more likely not to procrastinate on their work projects than people who never let themselves enjoy fun until after the work is finished.
But for writers, scheduling play isn’t just about avoiding procrastination. It’s about keeping your mind fresh and limber so you can come to your creative work productively.
Before you fill in the time blocks in your workweek, schedule treats for yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as half hour to watch an episode of your favorite TV show, or walk around the block — or as generous as an afternoon spent at the movie theater or out hiking.
Scholes sometimes finds his own creativity by staging photo shoots with his extensive collection of Batman figures in his daughters’ dollhouse while they’re at school. “There’s a little four-year old inside of me that needs to be turned loose,” he said. “He’s the one that comes up with awesome stories to tell.”
Manage your priorities, both in work and in life
The Eisenhower Method of time management (championed by Stephen Covey in his book, First Things First) categorizes tasks into a 2×2 matrix based on whether they are urgent/not urgent and important/unimportant.
Most of the time, self-care doesn’t fall into the urgent category, which is why it can easily fall to the wayside in the face of “urgent” deadlines and emails.
But it is important. And if you don’t practice regular self-care, it will become an urgent matter quickly (like I learned over and over again when I first started freelancing). Making sure you’re eating right, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough exercise may not seem urgent, but those things are fundamentally important to your work.
Scholes has established his own set of priorities, and eschews certain tasks or traps that get in the way of his work.
Along with the usual culprits like email and social media, Scholes also drastically cut down on travel time. He lives in a small town about a 45-minute drive from Portland, Oregon, but instead of driving into town to see friends, he now invites them out to visit him.
At the top of his hierarchy? Nurturing his relationships. “People come first regardless of where I am in a book or a deadline,” Scholes said. “If my kids need me, if my friends need me, if my tribe needs me, then people are always more important than work for me.”
Over the past few years, I’ve learned that creating space to work, exercising, practicing self-reflection, and spending time with family are all crucial parts of my self-care as a writer.
When I notice I’m starting to shirk these priorities because of client deadlines and overwork, I know I need to shift something in my life to accommodate what I value.
As counter-intuitive as it seems, taking time for myself has made me a better — and more productive — freelancer and novelist.
What about you? Do you have specific self-care practices? How have they changed over the years? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.