Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Here’s something most people will tell you about being creative – it can be fun, rewarding and exciting. Here’s something they probably won’t tell you about being creative – it can also be frustrating, stressful and tiring.
I’m going to assume that – since you’re reading this blog – you’re a creative person and can therefore probably identify with this emotional dynamic. As creatives, we have the tendency to be very passionate about the projects we work on. We’re also usually pretty happy to sacrifice our free time in the pursuit of those projects. Some of us will eagerly add and add to that work pile, labeling absolutely everything as ‘essential’ and ‘must be done ASAP’ in order to feel creatively fulfilled, especially if we’ve got that boring (but financially necessary) daytime job eating into our precious novel-writing time.
Until we reach that point in the future where most of these boring day jobs are performed by robots and we’re all painters and poets living in a barter economy, you’re going to have to keep managing your time effectively. A key part of this is not only finding the time to squeeze things in, but recognizing when that time simply isn’t there, or if it is, whether or not you should fill it with yet another project.
You might not be aware of it, but you could be stretching yourself too thin, and that only impacts on your well-being and productivity negatively. First, we’ll go through the warning signs, and then some all-important solutions.
What are the signs of writing stress?
Health, well-being and behavior
It’s no secret that stress can make its presence known both emotionally and physically, whether you’re fully aware of it or not . Here are some of the indicators to look out for:
- You feel like you’re constantly ill and can’t seem to recover properly. Most adults will suffer from 2–3 colds on average per year, but if this rate seems higher for you, or if you’re struggling to shake one off, then stress could actually be the culprit. Cortisol is a stress hormone that the body produces when it’s under a lot of pressure, but it can become depleted if this pressure is too constant, leading you to become more vulnerable to getting sick,
- You’re suffering from regular physical aches and pains. These can range from neck and back pain, headaches/migraines, chest pain or shortness of breath, stomach pain, to – in some extreme cases – alopecia,
- You have trouble sleeping, or feel constantly fatigued,
- You’re over- or under-eating. You could be feeling compelled to snack more, eat more ‘comfort food’ or sugary things. Alternatively, you could be suffering from a loss of appetite,
- Your outlook is more negative. You find yourself complaining more often than usual, you’re easily irritable, you feel depressed or despondent and you often feel anti-social or withdrawn.
Stress can also adversely affect the quality of your work and productivity. Here are some indicators:
- Your concentration/attention span is waning faster than usual,
- You’re rushing through tasks,
- You feel bored or indifferent towards your work,
- You’re making more mistakes than usual.
If a good number of these symptoms are reoccurring in your life, then I’m afraid you’re likely to be over-working yourself.
What are the solutions?
Do the hard thing: drop some work
Often, when it comes to the things we’re passionate about, we readily choose to stretch ourselves to breaking point because we think that the payoff will be worth it. Plus, that’s what committed artists do, right? During the filming of the first Star Wars film, for instance, George Lucas – with only a week left to wrap on a chaotic and under-financed set – was running straight from production to post-production duties without breaks.
One day, he found himself experiencing chest pains and was forced to take time out to go and see his doctor to check if he’d had a heart attack. The doctor told him it was just hypertension, but strongly recommended he reduce his stress levels. Lucas heeded his doctor’s sage medical advice, put his feet up for a few weeks, and sadly Star Wars never saw the light of day. Except that, as you know from being alive in the world, that’s not what happened at all. Lucas ignored his doctor and worked even harder to salvage the film.Taking on too much can often mean that less gets done.Click To Tweet
Although Lucas’ gamble paid off, unless you’ve got a faceless corporate entity breathing down your neck, overworking yourself is unlikely to produce anything worth sacrificing your good health and well-being over.
The quickest way to alleviate the suffocating feeling of being overwhelmed is also the hardest one, especially for those of us who pride ourselves on being multi-taskers. Examine your workload and make the hard call – what can be cut? Unless you’re working to a strict deadline, there’s no reason why you can’t just pick it back up again later on. There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do everything at once. Plus, shelving ideas to be picked up again or recycled is a perfectly legitimate artistic practice.
Work out your key priorities
Financial reward? Creative satisfaction? Scholarly achievement? Personal accomplishment? What is the driving force motivating you, and which of the too-many-tasks before you fulfill it? Think about your long-term goals rather than just what needs doing in the short term.When prioritizing projects, ask what you want in the long-run, not just the moment.Click To Tweet
Be more realistic with your goals.
Are you overestimating how much you can get done in a day? Setting yourself deadlines you can’t humanly achieve will only leave you needlessly frustrated. Time yourself working and see how much you really get done in a few hours. If you need to pick up the pace, you can then work to increase this incrementally by the hour or day.
Get to know your working rhythm better
Do you give yourself enough time to finish tasks to a standard you’re happy with? Do you give yourself enough breaks? Are you working in the most comfortable environment you can? Do you prefer working in silence or with background noise or music? Are there too many people around you? Is your phone distracting you with notifications and calls too often?
What works best for others won’t always work best for you. J.K. Rowling wrote most of her early drafts in public places like cafés and trains between London and Edinburgh. D.H. Lawrence believed that trees were “living companions” and enjoyed writing outdoors sitting underneath one. Agatha Christie had a peculiar routine of sitting in an old Victoria bathtub and munching apples in-between plotting her murder mysteries. Benjamin Franklin apparently felt most productive in the nude. Maybe don’t try that last one in your local Starbucks.
Change your lifestyle
A healthier diet, more exercise, less caffeine and sugar, and more sleep are all proven to be effective stress reducers and – consequently – productivity improvers. These seemingly minor changes can be much more effective than you might think, even in terms of small, daily improvements.
Let it all out
The silver lining to reaching breaking point is knowing how much of a relief it will be once you’ve been able to work through it, and – take it from someone who’s been there – you will get through it.
My advice is to try and vent as much of this unproductive emotion that’s building up inside you as possible, like sucking the poison from a snake bite. Lock yourself in a room for a while and punch a pillow, have a good cry, or lock some unfortunate soul in there with you and complain. Once that’s out of the way, hopefully your head will be feeling less foggy with negative feelings and you’ll be able to start focusing on solutions with new-found clarity.
Hang in there, kitty
Being overwhelmed can often leave you feeling paralyzed. Confronted by the realization you’ve got too much to do, you feel as though you can’t possibly do any of it, and it’s easy for despondency and apathy to set in.Writing really is a marathon – rest before you run, or you’ll wear yourself out.Click To Tweet
It’s okay to not be the world’s greatest multi-tasker. If you’re better off focusing on just one task at a time, then that’s how you should work. After all, is it better that you get the work done quickly, or that you get it done well? (That was a rhetorical question – it’s the latter.)
For more on a healthy writing lifestyle, check out The Sneaky Problem That May Be Undermining Your Success, You’re Not The Only One: How To Handle The Loneliness Of Writing, and Why You Don’t Need To Worry About Hating Your Own Work. Have some tips of your own on reducing writing stress and committing to healthy writing behavior? Let me know in the comments.