Self-Care for Writers

by Jami Gold on March 8, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Zen candles and stones with text: Relax... Self-Care for Writers

Writing can be an odd career. We can go from leisurely writing as we feel like it to stressed under an impossible deadline. We might be in waiting mode after we query or submit, or we might be trying to do All. The. Things. before a release date.

Those variations mean that we can struggle to get into non-writing habits and routines. When we suffer from writer’s block, our home might be spotless, as we use cleaning to procrastinate. Other times, we might run out of food and clean dishes, as cleaning falls by the wayside.

Deadlines, writing grooves, inspirations, and just plain stubbornness can all play havoc with our schedules. Most writers I know have forgotten to eat occasionally when they get into writing mode.

Showers, sleep, and exercise can all become optional. And doctors’ appointments? *pshaw* We’re not going to leave the house unless it’s on fire or an emergency room visit is required.

Yet many of those choices can affect our health. So every once in a while, we need to step back and analyze our self-care habits and routines—especially when we have time between the chaos. *smile*

Self-Care Tip #1: Schedule in Downtime

Last year, I had four releases, and that destroyed my ability to get anything else done. And then I finished up 2015 with NaNoWriMo and headed straight into another deadline because…glutton for punishment?

(Yes, this is another one of those posts that I’m writing to try to make myself listen to my own advice. *grin*)

As we’re planning our writing schedule—whether that’s time for drafting, querying, or our future book releases—we should schedule in downtime. Downtime helps us find our balance again between writing projects.

Downtime might mean that we binge-watch our favorite shows to refill our creative well. It might mean that we un-bury our desk or our house from a deadline mess. Or it might mean that we catch up on doctors’ appointments that we’ve been putting off.

If we don’t take the time to find our balance between projects, the bad habits we picked up during our chaos dig in and become our new “normal.”

  • Staying up too late? That’s just our new bedtime.
  • Slacking off on exercise? Eh, it’s not that important, right?
  • Grabbing junk food when we’re hungry? Maybe we’ll get to the store next week.

Downtime of at least a day or a week can be our opportunity to pick up our good habits again. We can remind ourselves what our normal is supposed to be.

Last year, my only “downtime” was a vacation where I still worked on editing and cover art (not to mention got sick) and a few days around the holidays. In other words, none of those times were “normal” either, so I never had a chance to pick up good habits again.

Self-Care Tip #2: Don’t Let Symptoms Get Too Bad

An occasional delayed meal won’t cause starvation. A deadline that interrupts our exercise for a week isn’t the end of the world. And a lack of sleep one night a week won’t hurt us too much.

But once that time crunch is over, we need to reset ourselves. If we never return to our good habits for eating, exercise, sleep, or other self-care issues, our health will deteriorate.

I’ve been running on 4-6 hours of sleep for most of the past 6+ months. I also spent most of that time limping because I thought I had a broken toe that would eventually heal on its own. Etc., etc.

Together, my months-long (year-long?) bad habits caused more problems. Lack of sleep led to eye strain that pushed me into needing a prescription. And my foot injury, which I discovered was actually nerve damage when I finally went to a doctor, prevented me from exercising for an unhealthy number of months.

My eye symptoms have become so bad that I’ve had to stay mostly offline for the last several weeks. Believe me, there’s nothing like a few health problems to force you to re-prioritize. *smile*

(If you’ve noticed that I’ve been slower about replying to comments or email, it’s because I’ve only been able to read my computer screen a couple of hours a day. Not good for my line of work, especially as I still have that post-NaNo deadline to worry about. *sigh* Sorry!)

I finally went to the eye doctor, and it turns out I can’t see near, far, or middle distance. Huh. No wonder I felt like I couldn’t see anything. It’s because I can’t. *head slap*

Often, when it comes to our health, if we neglect a small problem, it can turn into a bigger problem. So even though I still have a deadline hanging over my head, I’ve been forcing myself to go to all the doctors’ appointments I’ve been putting off for far too long.

Self-Care Tip #3: Take an Inventory from Head to Toe

Whenever we get downtime, or at least non-crunch time, we can take an inventory of our health to see where we need to reset ourselves, return to our good habits, or catch up on issues.

Sleep:

  • Are we getting enough sleep?
  • Do we need to adjust our schedule?
  • Can we fit in naps?
  • Do we struggle to fall asleep and need to change our habits to include relaxing, non-computer-or-other-devices activities before bed?

Eyes:

  • Do our eyes feel strained?
  • Should we try a Pomodoro-type of schedule, where we give our eyes an occasional break from looking at a screen and focus on the distance for a few minutes?
  • Should we look into getting computer glasses for that arms-length middle distance of our computer monitors?

Brain:

  • Do we need to take a creativity-break to replenish our creative well?
  • If we’ve been editing for too long, can we switch to drafting (or vice versa)?
  • Are we using positive reinforcement and celebrating our accomplishments before diving into the next project?

Stress Level:

  • Should we practice relaxation (deep-breathing or meditation) techniques?
  • Can we make adjustments to our schedule for more downtime or to delay our next deadlines?
  • Do we need to call in help?
  • Are there any non-writing to-do lists hanging over our head that we should take care of while we have a chance (cleaning, house projects, appointments, etc.)?

Diet:

  • Are we eating healthy foods (or do we need to restock the kitchen)?
  • Are we drinking enough water to keep our eyes moist while looking at screens?
  • Do we have healthy snacks at our writing desk?
  • Can we get on a regular eating schedule (and maybe cut out the snacks)?
  • Do we need to cut back on sugar or caffeine from our long-hours habits?

Posture:

  • Have we been slouching or hunching over during our high-intensity work?
  • Can we adjust our writing environment for better posture?
  • Should we look into a different chair or desk for better ergonomics?
  • Can we integrate stretches into our writing day to prevent poor posture?

Wrists:

  • Do our hands or wrists feel weak, sore, or overworked?
  • Can we add wrist exercises into our habits?
  • Do we need to trim our nails to prevent keyboarding at odd angles?

Body:

  • Are there any symptoms we should check into?
  • Can we start up a healthy exercise routine?
  • Are there around-the-house projects like gardening that we can use to become more active?
  • Can we at least find some sitting exercises to do at our desk?
  • Should we spend some time outside to soak up Vitamin D?

Mental Attitude:

  • Are we suffering from burnout?
  • Do we need to reach out to our support system or the writing community for encouragement?
  • Are there negative people/situations or nagging annoyances we should avoid, fix, or eliminate?

If we’re not sure what we need, we could take a quiz to check what issues we might be facing. Once we have a better handle on why we’re feeling physically, mentally, or emotionally bad, we might know what we need to do to fix the problem.

Why Is Self-Care Important?

If we’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we know that physiological needs (air, sleep, food, water, etc.) must be met before we can concentrate on higher needs. Next comes our general health and well-being, followed by the emotional needs of support and respect.

The writing process is a high-level need, psychologically speaking, as creativity falls under self-actualization. We write as part of a desire to reach our potential and expand our accomplishments in the world.

So to be the best writer we can be, we have to make sure we’re not neglecting those lower-level needs. Self-care is necessary if we want to continue writing and not be blocked by issues at those lower levels. Self-care isn’t about being too “soft.” Self-care merely helps us continue along the path we want for our life by eliminating obstacles in our way. *smile*

Do you struggle with the finding the right balance of work and self-care? Do your writing goals interfere with maintaining your physical or mental health? Have you ever neglected to take care of yourself? Did you fix the problem, and if so, how? Can you think of other self-care tips?

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50 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee March 8, 2016 at 7:22 am

What’s self-care? [/wry tone]

More seriously, my definition of “normal” and “Oh, that’s okay” is skewed far from what they should be, because that’s how I grew up.

I’m used to being called selfish and lazy whenever I engage in self-care. I’m used to being in pain. I’m used to being dizzy from lack of food (“You don’t need that; have some water”).

What I’ve been taught the balance should be is…wrong, to say the least. So how can I find or know what a healthy one is? I’m still working on that, and the various issues that I have due to that background aren’t helping.

I do wish you hadn’t joined me in the “work yourself sick” department, though. 🙁 May you recover quickly!

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Carradee March 8, 2016 at 11:26 pm

P.S. My point for mentioning that personal example is that long-term lack of self-care is dangerous because it warps your definitions of “healthy” in ways that end up harming for you.

Don’t do that to yourself, people.

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, exactly. Thanks for sharing!

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:06 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Yeah, no kidding, right? Self-care? What’s that?

But your point is well-taken–that sometimes our “normal” situation makes it even harder to find a healthy balance. In situations like that, we might be better off listening to our body than to those internalized messages (which might be filled with insults, shame, etc.) and building a “healthy looks like” list from scratch.

Good luck and thanks for the good wishes! 🙂 *hugs*

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Stacy Jerger March 8, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Ahh, Jami! I hope you feel better soon!

(I have to do those wrist exercises…)

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Hi Stacy,

Thank you! And I hope those exercises help–they’ve been SO helpful for me. 🙂

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Christina Hawthorne March 8, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Do take care, Jami! Dangers abound and often there’s no reversing the harm done. Please be careful. Health issues related to your profession are more than warnings about your health, their signs that prompt changes are needed.

I worked for the same employer for 16 years without calling-in sick. Not once. I took my health for granted and when it turned on me it caused irreparable harm and great expense. These days my health is fragile and requires discipline to manage (a lesson learned in 2015). Much of your checklist has become my required routine. Looking at it all another way, though, I’m actually the better for all the changes that’ve been forced on me.

Do what you have to do before it becomes more serious, and it sounds as though it’s serious enough already. Multitasking has become its own disease where we believe we can juggle one more ball, and another, and another…

It might be time to reevaluate, prioritize, and focus more on less. Please do what is best for you.

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Hi Christina,

Agreed. Many health problems are one-way streets that we can’t easily reverse. I’m glad that you’ve found a way to be healthy. I’m getting the doctor appointments I need to get, so that’s a start for me. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by (and for your concern *hugs*)! 🙂

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Anne R. Allen March 8, 2016 at 12:47 pm

This is such great advice! And so important. I’m working on a post on this subject myself. I’ll link to this when it goes up. A lot of us are working ourselves into illness and depression because all the gurus tell us we *should* be doing all of it and if we’re not selling millions it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. What I finally had to tell myself is that none of it will matter if I’m dead. Which I will be very soon if I don’t get more sleep.

Take care and shut out the noise. I hope glasses will help your eyes and your foot is better!

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Hi Anne,

Yes, I’ve always been bad about overdoing it, and the writing life is far from the laid-back career many might assume. :/

You’re right that much of the problem is because of all the things we feel like we “should” be doing because of what so-and-so says. If we listened to everything they said, we still wouldn’t be doing enough according to others, so we need to prioritize listening to ourselves and our bodies instead.

Thanks for the good wishes and for sharing your insight! 🙂

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Deborah Makarios March 8, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Routine is your friend! The wonderful thing about routines – for eating, exercising, housework etc – is that once they’ve become habits, you do them without thinking about it, i.e. you can carry on thinking about your work while you do them 🙂 Start with one, make it a habit and then add another.

I also benefit from having a very helpful husband who will carry me off kicking and screaming to the table (not literally, but almost…) if temporary writing-induced madness makes me think that eating is optional. He’s good for me, but I’m afraid he doesn’t get the gratitude he deserves [blushes]

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Hi Deborah,

Yes, I’m too talented at making bad habits into routines. LOL! Which means that I don’t question them and come up with something better enough. 😉 My family constantly reminds me to eat, but they haven’t gotten to the point of dragging me off yet (maybe they should! 😀 ). Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Glynis Jolly March 8, 2016 at 4:04 pm

I need something for posture. I have this expensive chair that’s so nice to sit in, but I’m too short. If I rest my lower back against the back of the chair, I can’t touch the keyboard because of the arms of the chair. If I raise the keyboard, my hand is at the wrong angle. I need fluffy pillows.

I need to do those wrist exercises. I’m a one-hand typist so the wrist, especially at the thumb joint gets a little sore.

I’m filing this post away for later reference. This is great, Jamie.

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 3:53 pm

Hi Glynis,

I understand, except my problem is that I’m too tall. 🙂

Most arm rests on chairs are the wrong height for me, and they encourage me to slouch (and they’re usually not adjustable enough for my height). Trying to get my chair the right height for my legs and my keyboard at the same time is a nightmare. Really, I just need an adjustable keyboard tray, but not sure how many of those exist. :/

I know you have additional challenges, so I wish you luck! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Kassandra Lamb March 8, 2016 at 10:48 pm

Shared on Facebook because this is good advice for all busy people, not just writers!

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Aww, thanks, Kassandra! 🙂

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Serena Yung March 8, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Oh my gosh! Jami, I hope you feel better soon. 🙁

It’s definitely wise to make time for breaks from our writing. As you know, I like to go to social events to rest and recharge (because I get energy from socializing anyway); but these events are fun, like bowling with a gang of friends. 😀 I also use Facebook to recharge and relax because it really does re-energize me and make me more awake! FB uses up almost zero mental energy and uses no creative energy too, so it makes a good resting activity. Sometimes when I face the comp a lot, I will listen to about three to four songs with my eyes closed or whilst staring at something distant. This makes me rest my eyes for about ten minutes or more without getting bored, lol, as the songs on my phone tend to be 3-4 mins long.

As for exercise, I’ve tried lots of different kinds, but I realized that I like taking long walks the best. Unfortunately I was over-enthusiastic about this, and injured my feet because I walked too much, and they didn’t fully recover until after two weeks. So now I have to be cautious, and only take longish (about 30 mins max) walks occasionally, i.e. not daily. Yeah I’ve gotten quite weak now, but I have to stop being mad at myself for becoming so unfit and just diligently work at getting stronger again.

Reading a book for pleasure is a nice way to charge up emotional energy, as it generally makes me happy and relaxed. There were some studies saying that when we read for just 6 minutes, our bodies relax and calm down, so it’s a good stress reliever. My mind (which is often spinning with worries and stressful thoughts) does actually calm down somewhat when I read a novel, so this technique seems to help me!

Here’s the study where reading was found to be very effective in reducing stress:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html

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Deborah Makarios March 9, 2016 at 4:32 pm

Reading is my favourite way of de-stressing, although I would have great difficulty stopping after just 6 minutes! Knitting is probably my second-favourite. Sadly, I haven’t learned how to do them both at the same time – yet!

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 5:36 pm

Hi Deborah,

I’ve done sewing and audio books at the same time. (Doing an activity like that is the only way I can enjoy audio books, actually. 🙂 )

And I used to be a reader who only read in long chunks, but with my schedule, that meant I never read. 🙁 So I’ve changed to being a five-minutes-here-and-there reader. It’s harder to get into a story sometimes, but at least I’m reading again. 😀 Thanks for chiming in!

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Serena Yung March 9, 2016 at 8:54 pm

Yikes, yeah in secondary and primary school, I read in big chunks because I could. But ever since high school and especially university, I had to get in reading any time I can, a few pages here and a few pages there, similar to what Jami said. But hey, at least I didn’t stop reading like many (or most?) of my university classmates who were originally bookworms. I had some classmates say, “Wow! You actually have time to read for pleasure!” I think I said that I make time to read every day, lol. I have to read if I want to become a fantastic writer anyway–no amount of busyness will ever excuse me from this duty. ^^

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Deborah Makarios March 9, 2016 at 9:15 pm

Yeah, you have to read what you can when you can. I got through Nicholas Nickleby in morning and afternoon tea-breaks at my old job, while waiting for the kettle to boil.

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Serena Yung March 10, 2016 at 7:12 pm

Lol I do something similar to that too. It’s golden reading time when you’re waiting for something to finish cooking in the saucepan or microwave.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:02 pm

Hi Deborah,

I’ve now gotten through about 10 books in this little-bit-here-and-there method, so I’d say it definitely works. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep, to be a writer, we need to find time to read. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 5:31 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, as I’ve worked on fixing my foot, I’ve been taking a long walks again. They’re also good for brainstorming time. Bonus! 😉 Thanks for sharing your ideas!

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Serena Yung March 9, 2016 at 8:48 pm

Yay! I forgot to mention that unlike a lot of other writers, I don’t like to write a big chunk in a short amount of time. So in the past it was just at least 2000 words a day (which takes me about 1.5 hrs). Now that I have to study for my course, I only write or edit for at least 1 hr a day. Sometimes I exceed this minimum, but I rarely do 2 hrs or more! (Of course I could do a bit more, but that would give me less time to study, read, and draw…) As for drawing or Photoshopping, I find it tiring too, so I rarely go over 4 hrs in a day. Usually it’s only 1-3 hrs, and most of the time it’s closer to the 1 hr end. XD That’s why it really took me an entire month to finish my most recent picture that needed 30+ hrs of work.

Haha with my small amount of time spent on writing and drawing daily, I must look lazy to many other artists, lol. But hey, at least I do manage to do it every day (or make up for a day if I miss it); and over time, all those little bits of effort from all those days accumulate into something big. And it’s not just that it’s too physically exhausting for me to do so much at once. It’s also because it would be too stressful to work so hard for so long without much rest in between. Haha I had more stamina and endurance when I was younger (in my first and second year of undergrad), but well, I have to adapt to my diminished strength. *shrugs*

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Deborah Makarios March 9, 2016 at 9:22 pm

“A small task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” So said Anthony Trollope, and he only wrote first thing in the morning before heading off to his day job – and he still wrote a heap of best-sellers.

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Serena Yung March 10, 2016 at 7:17 pm

Thanks for the quote and encouragement. 🙂 Yeah I’m inspired by the authors who write at least a bit every day. Though I know not everyone likes the method of writing daily, I personally adore it and it works perfectly for me. 😀 It may require some discipline, but at least it saves me from a lot of stress! I also don’t need to feel guilty about “not writing”, because I AM writing some of my stories each day, haha.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Hi Serena,

I used to think I could only write in hour or more chunks (like the #1k1hr group). But this past NaNo, I started doing 30 minute chunks, and I was surprised by how well that worked for me. 🙂

As you said, little amounts add up over time. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung March 15, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Oh yes, I actually prefer doing smaller amounts at a time too, like 30 min (or even shorter) chunks, and this adds up to 1 hr or whatever my goal is by the end of the day. 😀

But sometimes I’m too tired (or want to finish a book!) so I just do two hours the next day instead, lol.

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Tracy Campbell March 9, 2016 at 9:05 am

Jami, thanks for bop on the head. LOL. Spring is almost here and I’ve promised myself to bike and walk and swim in the afternoons. Take care of yourself. ?

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Hi Tracy,

LOL! I tried to bop gently. 😉

Yes, I don’t have a bike, but I’m working on the rest of your list. 🙂 Thanks for the kind wishes, and back to you too!

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Julie Glover March 10, 2016 at 8:59 am

I actually think I learned my lesson years ago. I pushed and pushed and pushed myself through a crazy schedule for weeks, and when I finally had a week between major events—I got pneumonia. I ended up having to delegate a bunch of stuff and manage a large event the best I could from my cell phone while laid up in bed trying to breathe. I honestly believe that my lack of self-care made me vulnerable to getting so ill. I simply haven’t fallen prey to that level of stress since. And my husband’s very good at reminding me to say no when I need to. *smile*

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Hi Julie,

Oh my gosh! That’s happened to me so many times. Well, not with pneumonia, but with getting sick at my first day off. LOL!

Sounds like you learned your lesson better than I have yet. 😉 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Laurie Evans March 10, 2016 at 8:48 pm

I’ve had to set some limits in the last few months. I have limits on how long I sit; when to get up; when to cut off working for the night. I sometimes “cheat”, but I’m getting better. It’s hard with a self-publishing to-do list that’s 8 miles long…I’ve learned to delegate a bit more, too. That’s very hard for a control freak like me!

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Hi Laurie,

Yes, my new day job schedule has been the hardest thing to adjust to. I used to get my best writing in after 9pm or so, but now I need to head to bed around that time. 🙁 And yep, I hear you on the control freak aspect too. 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

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Ellie Holmes March 12, 2016 at 10:58 am

Fab article. We all know the dangers but all the same we can get sucked into the vortex of trying to do too much. I try to factor in things like reading time (for pleasure rather than work related), TV/film nights and I am a great advocate for Slow Sundays. Some people go for a complete digital detox on a Sunday I haven’t gone quite that far – you’ll still find me popping online periodically but the vast majority of the day the pace is markedly different to the rest of the week and it’s a day primarily for family, friends and hobbies and I feel all the better for it.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Hi Ellie,

So true. I know that I need to take care of myself, but sometimes it’s “easier” to push myself. *sigh*

I do try to mostly stay offline during the weekends, which helps, but we can still try to fit in too much. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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Gloria Oliver March 13, 2016 at 11:07 am

Hope you’ve been better to yourself!

This can all definitely become issues. And if you have a full time (and sometimes more than full) day job on top of the writing, it can become a juggling act of DOOM!

The older we get the more it becomes a vital thing to keep in mind as well! Oi! 🙂

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Hi Gloria,

Well, I’ve been better about making doctor-type appointments for myself anyway, and I’ve had to stay mostly offline for days at a time due to my vision problems. Good for recovery, not good for keeping up with blog comments. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Kerry Gans March 13, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Jami – When I revamped my workday schedule in January, I actually scheduled an hour and a half of “me time” while my daughter is at school. Some people think that’s a waste of time, but I use it to do all those personal projects that excite me and that I just don’t “make” time for any other way. Or I use it to sleep. 🙂

And, yes, there are days I still work during that “me time” block, but the key is that I CHOOSE to work on those days. It not something I feel pressured to do, because I have given myself permission to NOT work at that time if I don’t feel like it.

Having that scheduled time has really helped my mindset and attitude, and made me feel like I am not falling so far behind in those other areas of my life that are important to me but I kept pushing aside until “later”.

Kerry

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Hi Kerry,

Great idea! You’re right that so much of this is a mindset/attitude problem, especially when we feel guilty for not getting more done. :/ Thanks so much for sharing your insights! 🙂

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Danielle March 21, 2016 at 11:57 am

Thank you! I found this post via another blog post and I just wanted to tell you thank you so much for writing it. So much of this speaks to me and how I’ve been feeling of late.

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