Becoming a Healthy Writer
Writing offers considerable benefits even beyond the possibility of making money. Writing can be a stress reliever and a way to explore complex feelings. Writing forces us to slow down and settle down for a while. But writing, especially long hours of writing, can be a health problem. Deadlines, rejections, and negative self-talk can be stress inducers. And the physical act of writing can be hard on our bodies. So one goal I’m going to take up for the next year is to be a healthy writer, physically and emotionally. Maybe you’d like to join me on the journey.
Our eyes really aren’t happy about all the screens most of us spend our time staring into. At a recent eye exam, I spoke to my doctor about the symptoms I was having. I knew they were related to the hours and hours I spent writing every week, but I hoped there was something I could do to lessen these effects, and I was happy to learn there was.
First, I needed to give myself breaks from staring at a fixed distance for hours. The doctor called it the 20/20/20 rule. I needed to set a timer for twenty minutes at the beginning of every writing session. Then every twenty minutes I needed to stop staring at the screen and stare instead at something at least twenty feet away for twenty seconds. This simple exercise helps relieve a considerable amount of eye strain. I’ve implemented it since then, and I can always tell when I’m not doing it. At night when I haven’t been using the 20/20/20 rule, my eyes burn and my vision sometimes blurs. But on days when I’ve stuck to the 20/20/20, I honestly feel a hundred percent better.
I also learned something about the distance between my eyes and the screen. It’s slightly more than arm’s length and right in what I think of as my “perfect” range. At that range, I don’t need my reading glasses, and I don’t need my distance glasses. The screen is very clear and crisp. But the doctor says that though I can see fine, my astigmatism is creating problems I don’t realize are adding to my eye strain. So I’m adding computer glasses to my life. My computer glasses are prescription, so they correct for my astigmatism and have blue light blockers.
Along with strict adherence to my 20/20/20 practice, I shouldn’t have evenings where my aching eyes make it hard to see at all. So, if you spend hours writing, consider adding both blue-blocking glasses and a 20/20/20 habit to your life. Your eyes will be healthier and happier for it.
Where you do your writing can be important as well. If you regularly engage in long writing sessions (and I certainly do) you need proper working conditions. You need a good chair that allows you to sit with your back straight. Hunched shoulders and a curved back add stress to your body that you will feel at the end of the writing session. Your feet should sit flat on the floor. Because I have such short legs, I have to put my computer chair in its lowest position. That meant my desk was too high and my screen was too high as well.
To solve the problem, my husband built me a desk that is very short, but it allows me to type with my shoulders relaxed and my back straight. My hands are at a lower level than my elbows when I type. As a result, I avoid exerting pressure on my upper body. It makes a world of difference in muscle strain problems. Even with a chair and desk that is the perfect height for me, I still risk damage from repetitive movements done for long periods of time. I also risk other issues involving circulation and blood pressure. And the more hours I spend writing, the more I’m living a sedentary lifestyle which isn’t helpful either. The cure for all of this is moving around.
As I’ve said before in the enews, I begin my day with exercise by riding my stationary bike. But I have realized that is not enough. I’m still having far too many long chunks of writing time at my desk. I looked into how much movement I needed to avoid the stress on my body from sitting and typing. Everywhere I looked it suggested a movement break every thirty minutes. The break didn’t need to be long, even seconds would be helpful, but I needed to be moving.
This fits perfectly with the 20/20/20 breaks I take for my vision. I realized I could do something for both my eyes and my overall physical health at the same time. Instead of simply turning to look out the window at something 20 feet away, I get up, walk into a different room, and look out a window for my twenty-second stare. On nice days, I even step outside and get a little fresh air while I stare off into the distance. My neighbors might wonder about me a little, but I’m lessening the stress on my body.
I’m also adding stretches to my day before I settle down in the chair so I’m not putting an already tense body into a stressful position. The result of this small change has been fewer muscle aches and generally more energy (which I can use to do more exercise like a nice walk in the afternoon). It’s a win all the way around.
For me, taking lots of breaks isn’t really a problem. I’m not great at focusing for too long at a time, so I’ve always been prone to stopping frequently to think and maybe check Facebook. Now I just use the same thinking time to walk into a different room or out onto the front step and stare into the distance. As I strive to be a healthy writer, it’s good for my body and my writing at the same time.
Healthy In/Healthy Out
Much of how your body feels is a reaction to choices you make, so the new year is a great time to evaluate those choices. Even something as simple as hydration makes a huge difference. I keep a tall water bottle at my desk, so I remember to drink water throughout the day. Dehydration only worsens things like eye strain and body aches. And I try to watch what I drink. Moderation is important in caffeine and sugar intake. Water is probably the best way to hydrate—whether you’re trying to be a healthy writer or just a healthy human.
When I’m being careful about what I’m letting into my body, I also need to consider what I’m letting into my head. I’m a great worrier, and for a while, I spent a huge amount of time researching and dwelling on worse-case scenarios which weren’t really helping my mental health. Now I try to be moderate. I don’t want to be uninformed, but I choose my sources carefully, and I avoid arguing with others online. No one benefits from that.
A healthy balance in your life, whether through what you eat, where you work, or how you view yourself and your life is important to a successful year. So, as you’re making changes to your physical space, guard your mental space as well. Give less time and attention to the negative, motivation-draining thoughts about yourself and about your writing. Writing little pep talks on cards and sticking them on your monitor or around your writing area may seem silly, but it can be surprisingly helpful. Too often we don’t get enough positive input, so we need to give it to ourselves. The more positively you move forward, the better you’ll feel and the better results you’ll experience.
Make this the year you keep your physical and mental health in mind with your new goals. You’re worth it.
Related Links for Becoming a Healthy Writer
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.