You might not know it, but you generally do just about everything better when you’re relaxed.
When I took voice lessons in college, my instructors spent more time telling me to relax (physically) than just about anything else. I clench and tighten my jaw a lot because of my anxiety, and you can’t actually sing properly without loosening your jaw. I quite literally had to start going to therapy to improve my mental health so that I could physically relax enough to perform correctly. (It helped with other things, obviously, but … you know.)
Years later when I started trying to teach myself the violin, I couldn’t figure out why I was struggling so much to get the proper techniques down. It turns out I still tense up every single muscle in my body when I’m doing things. That makes playing an instrument extremely difficult, too.
Thankfully at that point I had strategies in place to fix a problem like this.
So the next time I played, I relaxed my shoulders, my hands, my wrists. I closed my eyes, took in a few deep breaths. Then I just … went for it.
It wasn’t great, don’t get me wrong. That kind of positioning shift doesn’t just magically enhance your skill level. But it was the first time I could actually go about it the right way. The minute I relaxed, the easier it became to follow through on what I was trying to learn.
The same idea applies to writing, though not just in a physical sense.
It’s hard to leave your worries at your office door. Whether you work from home or in an actual office, it’s hard to set aside your personal and professional worries and focus all your energy on your work. When it comes to writing, even when we do seem to be able to block out these kinds of distractions for a time, there’s still evidence of it we often miss — like slouching, tensing up our shoulders, and clenching our jaws while we concentrate.
Have you ever wondered why, after a long writing session, you stand up from your desk and feel physically exhausted like you just ran 10 miles uphill without stopping? This could be why. You might not be actively thinking about the stress going on in your life, but your body is still fight-or-flighting you into a state of perpetual tiredness.
I highly recommend performing some kind of relaxation technique in the minutes before you start writing. Some people are afraid that if they do this they’ll relax too much and not be able to concentrate. And there are ways to work through that. But even if it’s closing your eyes for a minute, listening to your favorite song, or dancing around your workspace for 30 seconds, chances are you’ll be so much better off if you just take a minute to shake out all your stress.
Writers worry way too much about the future. We’re all guilty of it, even me, But “what ifs” become a huge problem when they start to prevent you from getting your work done.
Imagine sitting down to write the first chapter of your new book. You get a few sentences in and then decide you’re going to read them back to yourself. You’re not sure they’re as good as they can be — something about them doesn’t feel quite right. So instead of moving on to the next paragraph, you rewrite those first few sentences. Once. Twice. Three times. They’re still not “perfect.” So you just decide to call it quits for the day, hoping you’ll have a better idea tomorrow.
This isn’t exactly how all writers behave, but it’s not a total exaggeration either. Sometimes writers worry so much about doing everything right the first time or writing things in a certain way that they don’t actually accomplish anything. They focus on what’s least important right now and end up sacrificing hours upon hours of valuable time worrying.
You can’t do this. There’s just not enough time, and you have a finite amount of energy and motivation to work with. It’s OK to take breaks and think ahead, but if it’s getting in your way, you have to put measures in place to force yourself to chill out a little bit.
Writers work great under pressure — to a point. Deadlines are so often depicted as these dreaded things we inch closer and closer to, kicking and screaming the whole way there. But you just can’t underestimate the power things like deadlines have on your productivity.
A little stress is good. Pressure forces us to work even when we’re not motivated, which is something many writers and creators in general struggle with. There are ways to face the pressure without falling prey to the stress. Those relaxation techniques I mentioned earlier can help. But it’s the combination of physically and mentally calming and centering yourself that’s going to help you accomplish your writing goals.
It’s totally OK to take your writing seriously and want to be the best you can be. I love seeing that drive and determination in people. But you have to give yourself a break sometimes. You can’t just sit hunched over your laptop for hours worrying about every word and phrase and paragraph and expect to be able to get anywhere. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to do less than you planned. It’s OK not to push yourself to the absolute limit every single time you sit down to write.
Be kind to yourself. Work hard, but relax. You’ll think more clearly. You’ll write better. You’ll actually enjoy the experience. That’s the hope, anyway.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.