The Art of Rest: the importance of rest and healthy working principles for your writing

Writing is a rewarding art form, interest and activity, but it is susceptible to stress and tensions like anything else. There are some simple strategies to help recharge your batteries, find an environment conducive to productive writing, and importantly give yourself permission to rest once in a while.

Stress isn’t just work bound

I took a long weekend off the other week and pretty much did nothing the whole time, including writing. I opted for a cruisey weekend to replenish my batteries and relax. To rest properly I needed to detach myself from anything looking like ‘work’. I did very little the whole weekend. I didn’t feel guilty about it – I just wanted some rest and that included from writing.

Writing, like many outside interests, can be like work. We can take it for granted in many respects; usually with artistic ventures you are your own boss, no team to worry about, choice of working environment. In truth though, the application of work principles applies just as much to artistic ventures.

Stress isn’t work bound. It can occur anywhere. Writing might be a side interest or it might be a full time gig, but it’s just as prone to stress, tension and fatigue as anything else. In fact, there’s some speculation that writer’s block is the product of the depression. The importance of looking after yourself is just as applicable to considerations of writing as it is work.

If you’re into writing, you won’t just consider it a chore. It must serve a better purpose. It certainly needs emotional value. The problem though is that its potential is utterly dependent on yours. If you start to flag, for any reason, chances are the writing will flag too.

Getting rest is important to recharge and rejuvenate. It helps provide creative fuel. Of course, you need to be disciplined about it. It’s all too easy to say that you’re resting when in fact what you’re doing is procrastinating. That shouldn’t detract from the need to take a break, just be mindful of it.

Self-awareness about your stressors and triggers helps immensely here. Be conscious of how you’re tracking and the warning signs. You might even find that these indicators appear through leisure long before they manifest at work. This all helps keep your writing on an even keel, and get rest when it’s needed.

A healthy environment 

Rest isn’t the only consideration here. When writing, consider the factors that make for a more positive work experience. You’re in a fortunate position because you have a great deal of control over your time, planning, priorities and environment. 

Choose a place with lots of natural light. I can’t over emphasise this enough. Where I work, I am stuck in a windowless office with virtually no access to natural light. I have to leave the office building to get some. I would give a lot for a window, even if the view was relatively mundane.

Keep yourself warm. You don’t want to be stifling, but make sure you are comfortably warm to work without distraction. 

Speaking of comfort, make sure you’ve a comfortable chair. Keep moving and stretch periodically.

Break up your work – Pomodoro technique is fantastic for this. Have a separate activity for those spare moments, so that you are not distracted. Keep off the internet for the duration of the whole session. If you write something and realise you need to research something to make the scene work, take a note and move on. You can complete that research another time.

Set the tone of the location as to what works best for you. What this means is, if you know you work better with classical music over, say, pop music, then that’s what you play. If you know that you get too distracted with music don’t play it. Work to your strengths, not a romantic ideal. Coffee shops are interesting ones – I hear lots of things to say that they conducive to good writing because of the background noise. For me, I’m not so sure, because it’s not the type of background noise I savour. I also find the coffee very strong in coffe houses and I’d feel compelled to keep purchasing things to justify my presence there, so it would be quite expensive. All in all I find coffee shops exhausting because they’re so busy. I guess my point here is to ignore the romanticism that is often applied to the idea of the writer, and instead apply what works best, for you. If you love coffee shops for writing then go for it.

We all get ill

People get ill. It’s a fact of life. We suffer from physical and mental illness. The reality though is that as a society we are really poor at managing illness. There’s a long standing stigma associated with mental health, and many misconceptions about how we can simply shrug these things off. Even with physical health though, we apply poor standards. How often do we have colleagues coming into work with a cold, potentially infecting the whole office? Many employers don’t offer paid sick leave, forcing low paid workers to struggle into work even though they are clearly unfit.

The point I’m making here is not to allow this societal form of employment masochism to impact on your writing. If you’re ill then recover and rest. Don’t force yourself to write because chances are you won’t be that productive. Give yourself permission to lay off the writing. 

If you’re worried about getting your grove back, then consider a set plan to re-build momentum. We suffer lots of unintended setbacks or delays of one kind or another, so having provision for delays in general is a good thing.

Ultimately, writing is a process like any other. You benefit from organised routine, and have the right environment to work in. Being aware of the impact of stress, and taking appropriate action to minimise it, will deliver benefits. Most of all, give yourself permission to rest, recharge body and brain, because in the longer term you’ll gain more for your writing.

Write a book in 8 minutes…(a day)

Don’t have time to write? Think again. Some people set aside hours each day – lucky buggers – while others cram in maybe a couple of 30 minute blitz sessions. A few might just manage one such session. What they all have in common is that they write everyday, and they manage to organise their day to fit in their writing. They can do it, so what’s stopping you? You don’t even need 30 minutes. Write for just 8 minutes a day and you’ll have a novel within a year.

How 8 minutes a day equals a novel

We live busy lives, inundated with demands on time like work, family, social media and a myriad of distractions we’re told we need for some abstract purpose of marketing conformity. It might be easy to think we can’t manage to fit in artistic and creative ‘luxuries’ like writing.

The truth is if you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. It takes time to write, so you have ensure you fit in enough time each day to get something written. 

8 minutes a day. What are you doing each day that means you can’t spare 8 minutes?

Why 8 minutes you ask? Well, simple maths.

Imagine your typing speed is a sedate 30 words a minute. After 8 minutes that’s 240 words. Mulitiply 240 by 365 = 87600

Eighty seven thousand six hundred words. 

That’s a novel. 

That’s a short story anthology. 

It’s a few novellas. 

Just 8 minutes a day. 

Forget the romanticism of writing; these idea of lazy days writing thousands of words, taking long walks to boost your creative flow, and leisurely rewrites and edits of what you’ve done.

If you’re independently wealthy or already a successful writer, you might have that luxury. Most don’t. So 8 minutes a day is the best you might be able to summon.

Keeping a Routine

Now there are some realistic issues here. 

It can be difficult to get yourself going for the sake of 8 minutes. I find a five minute warm-up write does wonders, but then I fit in longer writing sessions anyway. So you need to get a habit going to seize that energy. This is about routine, selecting the same time each day to write. 

Maybe add a bit extra to your work time if you drive – write for eight minutes in your car when you arrive, or before you leave. Public transport? If your journey is longer than 8 minutes it’s sorted.

However you do it, turn it into a routine and keep doing it.

Keeping the flow going

There’s also a question of narrative flow. Inevitably it is easier to write a stream of events or even a single event when you have more time.8 minutes might challenge you to keep that flow going.

Having a good sense of structure or planning ahead can help. Planning each week can help provide the impetus you need to write an hour a week (8×7=56).

If you’re reading this thinking there’s no way 8 minutes is viable for focused writing, then I’d ask “what about 15 minutes? Is that really stretching it?” That’d be even more advantageous – nearly double the amount or half the time (6 months instead of a year).

My point here is that time is pliable if you’re willing to make accommodations. If you accept that usually writing a novel isn’t a quick process then you surely accept the capacity to spend a year on writing your book, short stories etc.

It’s not enough to claim there’s no time. You have the means, with some organisational effort, to contribute a little bit each day to making a writing project come together. For even a short spell and minor sacrifice, you can find the time to make it happen.

Blog Writing: the Neverending War of Time, Organisation, Priorisiting, and Managing Expectations

Writing seems like an endless journey of organisation and reorganisation these days. It’s too easy to say that there aren’t enough hours in the day, and in fact this would be untrue. What matters is the organisation of time, prioritising my blog, and managing my own expectations. 

Organising Time

Faced with the resumption of university, I can now take an intelligent guess as to where a lot of my time is going to be used up for the next few months. It’s easy to take an instinctive reaction and retreat from writing, but I did that before, and I reckon I paid a price for it. In fact, my last retreat had nothing to do with university. Becoming overly focused on a NaNoWriMo project, I ended up finding my time being all spent on that, even after November, and simply decided to ignore my blog. There was no particular reason why that should happen, but I figured I wouldn’t have time to write the blog. Without testing the hypothesis, I simply stopped. Now, months later, and I’m still struggling to reorganise everything to get back into a regular habit of writing each day.

Time is finite, which is fortunate, because you know how much there is going to be. Time is also, conveniently, organised for us, into 24 hour blocks to make days, and 7 days in a week (well, in Western society anyway). Assuming one is sleeping an average amount of eight hours a day, that leaves 16 waking hours each day to do something. 16. I should be able to fit something in there. I won’t reflect too much on this topic of time right now – I’m actually going to cover it later in the week. The point I’m making here is that if you know there are a fixed number of hours in a day, you have structure as to how you organise your daily writing.

For me, this means considering where my free slots of activity are. These are generally points where I’m not working on something. I should be able to find spare time in there to write a blog post. 

Managing Expectations

Another thing to consider is how much I write. I did a quick check of Chuck Windig’s excellent blog Terribleminds. One blog post, that didn’t seem particularly lengthy, was about 250 words. Another was 1000 words, and that was a lengthy piece about healthcare in the US (good reason to write longer). Even so, 1000 words is not particularly epic in the grand scheme of things – maybe 40-50 minutes of straight writing. 

The point I’m making here is that it isn’t necessary to write lengthy polemics for every blog post, so I shouldn’t set the bar that high. Do I really need to write hundreds and hundreds of words, if just a few paragraphs will do? I know I’ve started on subjects and become dismayed that they only fill a few blocks of text. In retrospect, I should fixate less on the length and more the breadth of the subject matter (…now there’s a double entendre I realise, but I’m sure you get my point).

Prioritising my Blog

So, my new approach is to plan out the subjects ahead of time, create the draft articles with a few notes for basic structure, and then complete over the course of the week. A single spurt of text, and a re-write, shouldn’t require a great deal of time, and by managing my expectations of my work (i.e. How long it needs to be), it should still allow for me to complete the other stuff that needs doing (like studying for example).

I already go to a writers group each week, so that provides for fiction writing time. With some reorganisation at a weekend, I can do similar then, interspersing with my university studies. It should be a nice counterbalance to my academia to have some fictional writing highways to travel. 

I won’t deny, I’ve been here before. I am a perennial planner and re-planner – called procrastination in some quarters – and this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to restructure my writing strategy. On the other hand, I reckon I’ve become better about this stuff these days than I used to. I’ve always reflected on how, at work, my day is well organised and work completed on time. Somehow I have yet to bridge that gap between work place efficiency and general efficiency in my life. They shouldn’t be that different in honesty.

It’s about getting into the habit of writing. Like exercise, making it a daily ritual. This week I have four more subjects planned to cover the other week days. The key will be creating five new ones in time for next week. Small steps, but they’ve got to be made.

The Curse of Being Organised at Work, or Facing Up To Leadership Errors

I’m going on record as saying ‘WTF?’

Seriously, what happened? 

Yesterday was all terrible rush…tired…too much work…Monday’s. Today was…bored out of my skull. The very antithesis of yesterday.

It’s not that I don’t have work to do – I was still able to build up a task list, and it wasn’t all done by the end of the day. It’s just that I do thrive on having a challenge. The work I had to do today was not the most stimulating. It’s that crappy administrative work that lays untouched for weeks or months that sooner or later need completing, but no one’s that bothered if it waits. It certainly doesn’t keep me fulfilled, like I’ve completed a big piece of work. It’s just stuff.

What’s worse, is that I know my team are busy. There’s a lot of work out there, and they’re all beavering away. So it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve got this wrong. Maybe I need to reassess how I evaluate my team’s workload. You see, I’m often busy with the normal routine of work, so it fits in with everyone else sense of daily pressures. Right now though, I feel like my camouflage has been lifted, and I’m a sitting duck exposed.

I like to think I’m organised. I keep my inbox empty, placing emails in their correct folder, flagging the ones that need follow up work. The casework waiting approval is zero. No major deadlines are waiting. The most critical cases are waiting for key tasks to be completed; it’s not that they’re just waiting there to be written up. 

So I have to think, how is it the work seems less busy for me, but not for my team? I could take the easy way out, and say it’s an organisation thing. For sure, there are some tips and tricks I could pass on, and I have done in the past, but ultimately I think it’s a cop out. In fact, I worry that it’s victim blaming. You see ‘frontline’ workers, particularly caseworkers in child protection, have significant pressures heaped on them. They’re typically at the lower end of the pay scale, but the collective responsibility is much higher. Large organisations, particularly government departments operating on an outmoded neo-liberal economic basis, lose sight of the very real complexities their workers face. In other words, it’s not a system catered for efficiency. 

So now, seeing that the work my team hasn’t diminished, even as mine has, I feel compelled to reassess what I’m missing as a team leader. Am I providing all the available time and ability to help my workers out? I don’t necessarily mean completing tasks for them – I dislike this as it infantilises and people can become dependent on that sort of thing. What I mean is providing the space for them to complete their tasks. Help relieve their pressures.

For example, do they have clear case direction? A lot of times I’ve seen workers (in different locations) put off particular cases simply because they haven’t received any clear direction. Many government organisations operate a command-and-control style leadership process (ironic for a profession of mainly social workers), and so workers have a habit of waiting until given specific instruction. Sometimes leaders can fall into the trap of thinking clear direction has been given, or even forgetting to give any direction at all. Regular supervision can help minimise this, but for some case matters they simply progress nowhere, in a kind of indecisive stasis. The more rigid the hierarchy, the more pronounced the problem.

So in this instance, is it an opportunity for a wider dialogue with workers? Not just asking them how they are going, but clarifying that they know where there are going with each case? Is it about encouraging them to re-assess where they are? 

I can also examine collective approaches. Sometimes, everyone in a team is busy, and assumes everyone else is, so they don’t ask for help, and put off undertaking home visits, meeting clients etc. Again, I wouldn’t seek to complete those tasks myself, but rather examine how, as a team, we are organised. I can encourage a team dialogue – what is everybody doing today, tomorrow, next week? Are we able to re-organise our calendars to accomodate each other?

This is about active engagement with the team. I could just sit back and wait. Feel that I’m on top of my work, and in so doing I’m making myself available for my team when they do start to send work through for approval, or when a crisis hits. This is passive availability – it’s good to have, but it doesn’t engage with the needs of the team. In fact, it could grow resentment because it might be quite apparent I have little to do, and looks like I’m not helping.

I’ve already cautioned against helping with specific tasks, because I don’t want to infantilise, and it’s also inefficient. If I was helping with specific tasks, it would be like being an extra worker,  but I can only be in one place at a time like that. As a team leader I need to be available for everyone, and be in a position to prioritise as critical issues crop up (and this being Child Protection, they will). 

So having little to do is not the self-congratulatory slap-on-the-back it might seem. Assuming there’s a lack of ability in the team to organise can be destructive, because such a perception ignores the wider complexities of workload and how organisations are structured (and so becomes victim blaming). It leads to an uncomfortable question – am I not so busy because I have been ignoring pressing, underlying, issues in my team? Critical reflection can be difficult sometimes; facing up to errors and mistakes can be uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to correct particular team wide issues, and help my team by being present in the moment to help them, and facing up to challenges I might have decided to file long ago, when I really should have tackled them head on.

Time, but time; the difference between professional and personal time management 

Why is my spare time management so woefully inadequate compared to my professional day-job organisation? 

I had a conversation with a colleague yesterday about organising work, time management etc. and the difficulties people have in general organisation. We also work in the social work sphere, an area of work renowned for lack of resources and work pressures. I understand the struggle, and training is woefully inadequate in these areas of planning, organisation and timekeeping.

I’ve prided myself on my ability to organise my work and effective time management. It wasn’t easy getting to that point. As a case worker I struggled for a long time to get organised, being sucked into the death spiral of child protection casework anarchy. Eventually though, I got to a point where I finally got on track, and this grew and developed as I moved into middle management. Now I feel firmly in control, even in crisis.

With personal projects though, I am a little more scattered. The most succes I had recently was with my NaNoWriMo, and that was at he expense of everything else. In terms of actual projects, the one project at a time approach is good, but I have a range of interests and a range of mediums. It sometimes seems more than can be possibly managed. I imagine I am managing my projects quite well sometimes, and perhaps it’s a case of setting the bar too high with unrealistic expectations.

I feel I need to rethink my priorities and about how to manage them. Some aspects, like photography, have been woefully neglected. I have some impending personal changes as well, including university and moving house, so some allowance will have to be made.

Centrally though, I think the biggest problem is that I have not yet fully worked out how to market myself. I have yet to find a way to tie together my professional and personal aspirations into something cohesive, so that’s where I need to start. Having diverse interests is good, but it’s about tying them together into something productive, marketable and consistent. Only then will it be easier to organise my time outside of work like I do at work.

Crisis Management 

Checked my work email this morning to find a number of crises developed overnight, so already I’m the fan of destiny prepped for the bowel discharge of fate.

Time is short on this morning’s bus ride, so this is a short blog entry about prepping for crisis.

1. Keep the routine as much as possible. I exercise in the morning before work. It would be tempting to forego this and head straight to the office, but the short term benefit of an extra hour would be extinguished by the long term break in routine. Better to exercise, be refreshed, and come into work all set.

2. Reprioritise, don’t panic. Crisis does not equal disaster. There may be a number of options available. I had planned on a number of things today, but clearly I’ll need to reorganise. This is different from ignoring what I plannned today – some of it will be quite important. If I need to move things to tomorrow or later it should be controlled and assessed, not simply dumped. That way I maintain control.

3. Communicate with the team. Not everyone will be needed to respond, but everyone should know what the situation is, and depending on the seriousness of the situation be able to reorganise and reprioritise their work. This means holding a quick briefing – I call these Scrums – of about 5 minutes to give everyone the details. This helps the team anticipate need and plan their own workload to help their colleagues.

So there are 3 quick nuggets for managing crisis. Incorporate it into your routine, not the other way round. Have an organised reorganisation of work priorities. Communicate with the team. All this will help develop a cohesive and disciplined response.

Boredom Lingers

Well this is a thing. I’m bored at work. It’s not that I don’t have work to do. It’s not that I find it unrewarding. It’s simply that I’ve run out of urgent things to do. The things I do need to do are done. Sure, there are things I would like to do to wrap up a few things here and there, but ultimately I have very little to manage at the moment.

Now, I could say that this is the price for excellent skills of planning and organisation. I mean, really, I could, because it is. Zero emails in my Inbox. ZERO! No tasks waiting for completion. Notes up to date. I’ve come into my system the way I left it – on top of my work and riding it like a bron…err, you know what, I’ll just stop at being on top.

I had time to read a short book – Five Go on a Strategy Away Day. Utterly hilarious. I was never a Famous Five person as a kid, but I did read the Secret Seven, so I loved the references to a rivalry between the FF and the SS (in the book, represented as two rival teams in the same company). A great guide to cliche and the despair of ‘team building’ days that seem anything but. 

I reckon I should indulge in the opportunity for some creative work, but the truth is I just don’t feel it. I’m happy riding in the calm. Is this what it feels like? To be on top of your work? I’m used to working at a much more frantic pace, something akin to a crazed hyena on acid (I imagine, having never observed such a thing before).

 I’m not complaining of course, it’s merely an observation. Perhaps if I’m at the same point next week (unlikely as I have booked ALOT of meetings) then perhaps I’ll start to think about prioritising some time.

It’s funny, for some time it felt like I was a lifeboat adrift in a stormy sea. Now I realise, for the lifeboat, you want some energy to keep moving and finally get rescued or get to land. Right now, I’m becalmed. It’s cruisey, but I ain’t no cruise liner.

Mystery of the crop

It’s a mystery. Like I’m a farmer in a remote location. I harvest my crop, and then some guy comes along at a pre-appointed time and collects my yield. I get my pay, they drive off, and I have no sense what happens after that.

That’s what it felt like today. I completed a job application. As per usual last minute (though not my fault this time – I just got back from holiday and only saw it yesterday, and the due date was today). I’m sure it could be better, but that’s not what’s bugging me the most.

What’s bothering me is that the post I was applying for is a step above mine – senior leadership. I had the job description, policies, notes and brainstorming, but it occurred to me – I don’t really know what my line managers do. I mean, I understand they must do something, because they’re often in meetings. I dearly hope they’re not meeting about having meetings. Occasionally I need them to approve something- my god like powersof decision making only go so far. I read the job description and think ‘yeah, but what does that look like?’

It’s difficult, accepting I have this level of ignorance about senior leader figures, but I genuinely had to think hard about how I would apply my skills to that role. My current role is clear, specific, and comfortable. Theirs is vague, ambiguous, and alien.

I know in my heart that’s not good enough. I should know what they do. In fact I need to – why would I entrust such urgent responsibility in the hands of people whose powers are so enigmatic. I am a trusting person, but not naive.

So, returning to the farmer analogy, and what happens to the crop, I have different choices.

Firstly, I could remain with my crop, ruminate on the possibilities and naturally acquire the knowledge. This would leave me susceptible to assumptions.

Secondly, I could ask the driver. This would open the possibility of interpretation – I would be at the mercy of the driver’s interpretation.

Thirdly, I could walk down the same road as the driver, and hope to find the knowledge myself. This puts more power in my hands, but then the crop would be neglected. 

Fourth, I could ask to go with the driver, to see for myself. This would give me first hand experience, but with a frame of reference to compare (the driver’s). However, it would also risk the crop being neglected.

If the driver refuses to answer (antagonistic or ambivalent), or gives a confusing answer (jargon), I’m a little left on my own. It would be better if the driver were in agreement.

And of course, I am relying on the driver to be knowledgable themselves, trustworthy, and have anything to show me. Wouldn’t that be something, if everyone was part of this system but had no idea of their role?

I’ve noticed that the driver has never offered to show me. Maybe they are ambivalent, or maybe they don’t want to ruin a good crop. I reckon I’m going to have to force the issue, and press the driver, my line managers, to drive me down the road.

You see, I know what strategic thinking is, I know what achieving results means, and building relationships. It’s the context of the the thing I’m missing. I have to explore their world to understand it,and decide if it’s really something I want to do.