When it comes to unleashing our best, most potent writing, it’s not only about the hours we have, it’s the quality of mind and body we bring to those hours. There’s the skill of writing and then there’s our physiological, mental and emotional state. Ultimately, you can’t separate them.
Here are some ways to improve your writing that have nothing to do with writing.
1. Commit to Joy
At some point on our road to adulthood, we buy into this idea that fun and pleasure is frivolous, non-productive, even fiscally irresponsible. Too often we don’t give ourselves permission to do things for the sheer joy of doing them.
But in my experience, joy is not a mere luxury. It’s non-negotiable. Because when we’re aligned with what truly delights us, we’re in flow — that blissful feeling when time is irrelevant, when we lose ourselves and simultaneously connect on the deepest level to who we are. Even small things that align us with our pleasure centers have been scientifically proven to be vital, not only to our happiness but to our emotional and physical survival.
Joy fuels our creative momentum. Infuses us with energy. Boosts our immunity.
Robert Holden, author of Shift Happens, believes when it comes to our quest for success, we have it all backwards. We often rely on external achievements to create our happiness. The finished novel. The publishing contract. We long for hitting those apexes of success so we can finally say we’ve arrived. But he believes that if we commit to our happiness, we will increase our chances for success.
The myth of the tortured artist is just that. A myth. Studies on the link between mood and creativity show that people are most creative when they’re happy and positive. Depression and bipolar disorders decrease creativity.
So, what lights you up? Long chats with friends? Argentine tango dancing? Playing piano? Travel? Long distance running? Eating fresh, luscious food? Art projects with your kids? More intimacy with your spouse? Would leaving your spouse make space for more happiness in your life?
Make a list right now.
I guarantee that if you make joy one of the top priorities in your life, you’ll write better.
2. Eat Well
One of the best consistent actions I know of to support my writing is to nourish my body with nutrient dense, whole food. That means eliminating or, at the very least, minimizing processed food in all its forms.
Our creative output is only as good as our input. The wrong foods cause stress in the body and stress in the mind, which leads to creative depletion.
High quality, nutrient dense, whole food help us vibrate at a higher frequency. It regulates mood and stabilizes our blood sugar throughout the day. It keeps us optimistic. And insanely productive.
Eating well is not rocket science. Just eat real food. Vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, fish and meat. Ideally, plants make up at least 50% of your plate. Michael Pollen offers some good rules of thumb: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Or anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
3. Make sleep a priority.
Maintaining creative momentum when we’re sluggish is a steep uphill battle. And if we’re chronically sleep deprived, we raise anxiety levels and are more vulnerable to an assortment of short and long term illnesses.
Sleep makes everything better. It boosts our immune system, keeps us positive and able to take on daily stress with poise and grace.
I’ve struggled on and off with insomnia my whole life. Especially now that I’m a parent, my mind and body is often still revved up at bedtime. Unless I take proactive steps to power down, I can lay in the dark for hours with thoughts racing toward tasks yet to be done. So I have a conscious set of rituals that help me transition from a turbo-charged day to restful, restorative sleep.
Here’s what works for me:
I strive to be in bed weeknights by 10 pm. So I shut all technology off by 8 pm, or at least one hour before bed. Texting within an hour of sleep, checking email, working late on the computer, watching television within an hour of bedtime wreaks havoc on your sleep. That’s because the blue light they emit suppresses melatonin, the hormone which regulates sleep and wake cycles.
When deadlines call, and I must work late at the computer, answer emails or text on my phone, I have an app called f.lux which allows my screen color display to adapt to the time of day, making it increasingly warmer at night so that my melatonin isn’t disrupted.
Make your bedroom your sanctuary. No televisions. No clutter. The darker the better. Keep smart phones on charge in a separate room.
4. Wake Up Earlier
An hour earlier. Better yet, two.
Laura Vanderkam did a fascinating study of what the most successful people do while most of us are still sound asleep. And the consistent finding is that they do plenty. They get a jumpstart on their workout, for example, plan and prioritize their day, or spend the first hour writing their book.
For years I was a night owl, conditioned from years as a ballroom dance studio owner and late night dancer/performer. Even years after I’d retired from professional dancing, I typically stayed up until 1 am or so, sleeping until 9 or 10 am.
When I had a baby, all that changed, of course. By the time Safira was 3-years old, I knew that if I didn’t re-condition myself to wake up earlier, I wasn’t going to get any writing done. Because once she was up, all bets were off.
These days, more mornings than not, I naturally wake at 5 am, which gives me a good 2 hours to gather my thoughts, get centered and write before my phone alarm starts beeping and my kiddo starts getting ready for school. Early quiet is serene. The solitude is heavenly. And there’s less compulsion to check or answer email straight away. Those two hours are sacrosanct, where I get the most bang for my buck. It’s when I’m most alert, focused and productive.
The added boon is that the rest of my day goes much smoother. I get reams more accomplished. I’m more even tempered throughout the day. I also sleep better.
If you’re not accustomed to waking early, no need to go full tilt right away. Start out waking 15 minutes earlier at a time. Your circadian rhythm will regulate, and in due time, your body will naturally rise.
Our morning sets the tone for the entire day. What you choose to do in your first hours can make or break it.
5. Move Your Body
When we change our physiology, we change our minds. Movement gets our blood oxygenated and flowing, and loosens the neural pathways. It infuses us with endorphins and produces a healthy surge of creative energy.
Dance, go for a run, walk – anything to get the blood circulating.
Writing takes a lot of energy.
If we have sustained energy, we accomplish more in less time. And we write better.
Busyness is addictive. We’re over stimulated. Anxious. Maxed out on our ever-growing to-do list.
Stress begets more stress.
Mindfulness meditation is a way of reigning in runaway thoughts so that we can bring more quality of focus to everything we do. It clears space in the mind.
Here’s the science: Meditating as little as 10 minutes a day shuts off the amygdala, the fight or flight center of our brain, which still can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger and a field mouse ripping through our pantry in the middle of the night. When the amygdala is activated, it shuts down the rest of the brain, rendering the creative hemisphere of our brain useless.
Meditation doesn’t have to involve spiritual yoga-esque visualizations of golden light traveling up and down our spine to our third eye. Or lotus flowers opening in our heart chakra (although that can be nice, too). It’s more like a mini-vacation from our mental chatter. Just pausing 10 minutes a day at your desk – connecting to your body, closing your eyes, tuning into the sounds around you, observing your breath – pays off in a calmer, steadier, more efficient, creative mind.
Quieting the mind is deceptively challenging. It does take practice. My favorite app for practicing meditation is Headspace.
Writing flourishes when we’re firing on all cylinders. It requires our full-on energy and focus.
You are your greatest creative leverage.
So practice impeccable self care.