Writers Talk About Writing
13 Ways to Prevent Overwork From Affecting Your Writing
Are you feeling overworked? You may have this feeling with writing itself. Or, perhaps your regular day job is squeezing you so hard you don’t have time to fit in any writing around the edges.
Many of us — Americans, I’m looking at you — are working longer hours than any time since statistics have been kept. In her book The Overworked American, author Juliet Schor revealed that in 1990, Americans worked an average of one month per year more than they had in 1970. One month!
That statistic may reveal the scale of overwork, but let’s also take a moment to dive deeper into the definition. In a 2001 study titled Feeling Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much, author Ellen Galinsky and her partners defined overwork as "a psychological state that has the potential to affect attitudes, behavior, social relationships, and health both on and off the job."
My view — which comes from observing my own habits as well as the habits of those I love — is that we often impose overwork upon ourselves. Many of us are prepared to work at any time of the day or night — checking texts and email at the dinner table (or <gasp> while driving!), answering voicemail messages on weekends, finishing reports late at night.
This is not healthy for us as workers, as individuals or especially as writers. In order to be able to write we need to feel relaxed and refreshed. If overwork is taking over your life and hurting your ability to write, here are 13 strategies I suggest you try:
- Ask for help: Most of us are so schooled in being “tough” and “resilient,” that the idea of asking for help seems almost unthinkable. If you find yourself buried in work then take a few moments to figure out how other people might be able to help you. Then ask them.
- Use technology to protect yourself: We’re quick to use technology to help us do more work (smartphones, the internet etc.) but we usually forget that we can also use technology to keep things away from us. Your phone has an OFF switch! Use it. And if you can’t keep yourself off of Facebook or Twitter then invest in some software that will do the job for you. FocusMe, ColdTurkey and RescueTime can all help.
- Get more sleep: Are you part of the one-third of adults who don’t get enough sleep? Sleep deprivation “causes more than $400 billion in economic losses annually in the US and results in 1.23 million lost days of work each year,” according to a 2016 study. Not having enough sleep weakens your ability to deal with obstacles, worsens your memory, causes your brain to work poorly, and makes you cranky and less creative. Most people need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. If you’re not hitting those numbers, your lack of sleep is contributing to your feelings of overwork. Fix this problem as soon as you can by going to bed earlier. (And remember to stay away from screens for at least an hour before bed. The blue light will hamper your ability to sleep.)
- Take time to recharge your mind and body: Get some regular exercise and make sure you have enough fun in your life. Are you having coffee with friends? Going for walks in the park? Seeing enough movies or concerts? This is not just about “entertainment,” it’s also about restoring your equilibrium.
- Understand your “magic” time: We all have a certain time of day when we can focus more acutely and work better. Mine is 9 am to 11 am. I schedule my most important (not urgent) activities for this time of day. For example, it’s now 10:05 and I’m writing this column. Trust me, you would not want to read anything I wrote after 2:30 pm. I use that time of day for meetings.
- Make a schedule: Because I differentiate between important and urgent tasks, I also schedule my day to do the important jobs in the morning when my attention and energy are at their highest levels. I have tripled my productivity by taking five minutes each morning to enter my plan into a schedule (divided by the half-hour.) Yes, I often end up changing my schedule as the day wears on but that’s okay. This plan forces me to be more realistic about what I can actually accomplish each day.
- Eat the elephant one bite at a time: When faced with a big project (an elephant) I always sub-divide it into smaller, easier-to-do tasks (bites). This practise makes me feel less overworked and way more accomplished.
- Start eating the elephant as soon as you can: Starting early on a project — as soon as you know about it — is the single best thing you can do to remove the feeling of overwork. This habit won’t reduce the amount of time you put into your projects, but it will make you feel less stressed by them. That speech you have to give in six weeks? If you start working on it today, you’ll be able to chisel away at it in a relaxed fashion and you won’t have to pull an all-nighter the day before.
- Don’t multi-task: Why do so many of us try to do more than one thing at once? Multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains can handle only one task at a time. Rather than multi-tasking, you’re essentially rapidly sequentially tasking. This means you’re quickly switching from one job to the next. The cost? This kind of activity takes you more time.
- Don’t overthink: Overthinking, which occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, is great for linear, logical work, but not so helpful for the creative demands of writing. Understand that thinking alone will never give you all the answers you need. Instead, you need some time to ponder, in a relaxed, non-stressed fashion. Go for a walk rather than spend more time at your desk.
- Stop complaining: Complaining never helps anyone. If you don’t like what’s happening in your life, figure out how to fix it. And if you can’t fix it, then accept it. Complaining only makes your life worse.
- Be prepared to say ‘no:’ We all have only 24 hours in each day. Figure out what’s most important to you and then schedule those activities. Be prepared to say ‘no’ to other tasks so you have ample time to accomplish the goals you care most about.
- Be more realistic about how much time you have for work: Research by social psychologist Ron Friedman shows that while the myth of the 40-hour work week still persists, we don’t actually have nearly that much time. Here’s how Friedman puts it: “Typically, we have a [daily] window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well. And if we end up squandering those first three hours reacting to other people’s priorities for us [responding to email, voicemail]…we’re not quite as effective as we could be.”
If you’re feeling overworked and this feeling is stopping you from doing your writing, then vow to protect yourself more vigorously. Overwork is a habit and you can break unhelpful, unhealthy habits if you’re willing to make that effort a priority. Try some (or all) of the 13 tips above and let me know which ones work best for you.