Zanny Merullo Steffgen
8 Ways to Stay Active and Cope With Free Time as a Writer
After a five year restaurant career — running around pubs, taverns, and bistros all over the world — I switched to the sedentary writing life this spring. While I consider myself a fairly active person, throughout the last five years the majority of my weekly steps came from restaurant work. It wasn’t only the walking around that made serving, bartending, and managing so active (and often physically exhausting), but also the running up and down stairs, the lifting heavy trash bags and plates of food, the moving of tables, the bending and squatting and reaching and also the constant need to be dialed into my environment.
Now, I spend hours a day sitting down and typing on my computer. I have to make a concerted effort to get up, leave my work behind, and get some exercise. I have to force myself to shut things down before bed or risk not being able to fall asleep, and I need, every so often, to break out of the little cocoon I’ve made within my head that keeps me focused on the tasks at hand but distant from the world around me.
Does any of this sound familiar? If you’re struggling to stay active and deal with all the screen time as a writer (or any other work-from-home job), check out these 8 strategies I’ve come up with.
Switch up your work location throughout the day I don’t know about you all, but sometimes I just need a change of scenery. I do a lot of work on my couch and some at the kitchen table, but sometimes I need to sit somewhere other than in my tiny studio apartment. This serves the dual purpose of providing both mental refreshment and the opportunity to move. Sometimes I pack up my computer and head to the local library for some quiet and a walk through town, or sit in a café to go through emails, or even take my planner out by the river to go over the next week’s schedule. It’s all about finding those opportunities for movement, even if it’s just doing lunges as you make your way from the bedroom to the bathroom, or running up and down the stairs in your apartment before you head out to work in a nearby café.
Take breaks when you feel the most caught up in your work Another facet of the freelance writing life I’ve struggled with is how mentally consuming the work can be. Sometimes I sit down to work on an assignment and finally wake up from a work coma three hours later, having zero idea that that much time has passed. Or when I take a creative writing day, I’ll be so caught up in the story that I will avoid the bathroom for hours until I’m about to pee my pants. Over the last few months, I’ve learned that these moments are the exact times when I need to get up and get some exercise. While being focused is great, oftentimes I do myself a disservice by sitting and working for so long. Instead, once I feel like I have been glued to my screen for a bit and am at risk of being pulled under, I’ll shut my computer, do a few stretches, and put on my running shoes. Then I’ll force myself to go for a hike, even if my mind is still racing when I walk out the door. I find that a little bit of fresh air and exercise allows me to come back with renewed mental energy, ready to pick up where I left off.
Seek out at least one face-to-face conversation with a stranger per day Part of working in a restaurant was picking up banter with strangers, whether I wanted to or not. Sometimes those interactions were a basic “Where are you from?” and other times they morphed into longer conversations on the meaning of life or the current state of the world. These conversations always refreshed me, got me out of my head and into the present moment. Now that such interactions are not a natural part of my work day, sometimes I need to go out of my way to seek them. This means asking the cashier at the gas station how his day is going, or speaking to someone in line at the grocery store, or even just saying hi to people as I pass them on a hiking trail. While there isn’t always an opportunity for a real conversation, these moments allow me to crawl outside the confines of my mind and return to my work with a slightly altered perspective.
Switch to pen and paper or record yourself speaking During many a restaurant shift, when business was slow, I would be known to pull out a bar napkin and pen and jot down some story ideas or bits of dialogue that had popped into my head. While it isn’t realistic to think I can write my work for clients by hand, there are other ways to incorporate different mediums into my writing. Whenever I take a walk, my subconscious mind starts working on new pitch and essay ideas, but when I get home and sit down at the computer all of the great sentences and outlines fade away. Sometimes when I take a walk (in an area where there’s no one else around), I pull out my phone and make a quick voice recording with whatever is in my head. That way I document my ideas before they disappear. Other times, just the act of scribbling poems in pencil or writing in my journal complements the creative writing work I must do when I open my computer screen.
Do some mindful tidying Let me preface this by saying that I don’t consider myself to be a clean or neat person. There’s a pile by my bed that grows every day, full of clothes, books, headphones, mugs half full of tea, and whatever else I might have with me in bed. Since transitioning to working from home, however, I’ve tried to break up my writing day with some mindful tidying. When I say mindful tidying, I mean I try to give my attention fully to washing the dishes or folding laundry and not let my thoughts wander off. I focus on the feeling of soapy water on my hands, the sound of running water, each individual crumb I sweep up on the kitchen floor. This is a good mental practice that also means my house stays relatively clean, which is an enormous triumph for me.
Find a fun activity that has absolutely nothing to do with writing When I worked in restaurants, reading and completing crosswords used to be two of my favorite hobbies. Now that I spend all day with words, I often find that my patience for them has worn thin by the end of the day. Watching TV, another post-restaurant-shift go-to of mine, involves more screen time which I certainly don’t need. So, in my free time, I now gravitate towards activities that couldn’t be farther from writing. There’s the fishing I do with my husband at least once a week, the knitting I’ve picked up recently, some low-level guitar strumming, and games of pool in bars. Each of these activities uses a different, non-writing-related part of my brain. This may seem like an obvious tip, but I really think it is worthwhile to invest your time in some hobbies that serve as a nice contrast to your work. (Just like I stopped going out to eat for fun when I worked in a restaurant.)
Make yourself take full days off Another challenge of switching to writing full-time has been managing my schedule. At first I adopted the idea that every free moment should be dedicated to writing, to make the most of this opportunity to change careers and ensure that I wouldn’t be back behind a bar anytime soon. But then I came to realize that the line between my on and off times became a little too blurry, and I’d lost the ability to fully focus or fully relax. So I synced up my schedule with that of my husband. When he works restaurant doubles Friday-Sunday, I sit down and pump out the work I need to get done for the week. When he works night shifts on Monday and Thursday, I take the evening to go over the weekend’s drafts or start new assignments. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I force myself to leave my computer at home (and often have withdrawals from it) in search of some fun, travels, or outdoor time. As difficult as it is, I make sure that on those days I don’t touch any writing assignments unless it is absolutely necessary. Everyone needs a little time away!
Switch up your pre-bedtime routine Perhaps the most important strategy I’ve discovered in coping with all the sitting and screen time of the writing life is making the most of the last hour before I go to bed. This doesn’t mean sitting in bed with my computer. Rather, I leave my computer at the table and do something totally different. Sometimes this is a gentle yoga flow or some basic exercises. Other times I bake cookies or put on karaoke versions of my favorite songs and sing at the top of my lungs (yeah, I spend a lot of time alone at home these days). When I worked in restaurants, I would come right home from my late-night shift, watch an episode or two of TV, and attempt to sleep. Many nights, my sleep would be disturbed by work nightmares, or I’d keep waking up thinking I had forgotten to bring a guest a drink. To avoid whatever the writing version of that would look like, I try to make it so the last thing on my mind before I sleep is anything but words.
I hope you’ve found some of these tips helpful, or can relate to the challenges I’ve faced since changing careers. So here’s to movement, to mental calm, outdoor adventures, and following your dreams!