A couple of days ago I had to get an emergency remedial massage. My shoulder had seized up so badly that I could no longer concentrate on my planned work for the day. I ended up lying on the floor using a glue stick to dig into the muscle knot, much to the amusement of colleagues who walked past my open plan workspace. I also put my earphones in and went for a walk to the massage therapist. Work would come in the form of audiobooks and thinking through logic problems in my communication, rather than words on the screen for the rest of the day.
Since May, my latest academic gig is working as a full time writer on a big national research project. That means that I am reading extensively to align my thinking to the research team’s theoretical and methodological frameworks, analysing huge amounts of qualitative interviews and reports, writing first drafts of journal articles and reports, and editing the collaborative writing produced by the research team.
I LOVE THIS JOB. It is like doing a PhD again but collaboratively with your supervisors and FOR MONEY. I am so enthusiastic about it that I want to be at work all the time doing it. BUT this means that I spend a lot of my time on a computer.
So while my mind is highly engaged for extended periods of time (something I have missed in other smaller academic gigs ), my body is giving out. I am one of those people who starts writing and then all of a sudden it is 4 hours later and I haven’t moved. This is a bad habit.
While my massage therapist was exclaiming about how I win the tightest shoulder award and punishing me mercilessly for it, I complained that I had been using a heat pack. She told me that the heat pack only works as pain relief and I needed to be more mindful about moving around and stretching.
I put out a call on Twitter to other people who work at full time writing and received quite a generous response. I wanted to know routines for exercise and looking after eyes, as I have also found that eye strain has become a problem. Below I’ve summarised the responses.
Rethinking writing as a sedentary career
One of the most valuable pieces of advice passed to Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom and then to me, was that writers need to take care of their bodies just as athletes do. I am beginning to understand that this advice is not simply about moving because writing is sedentary, it’s also about being able to continue to write pain free. Many of the people who gave advice explained how they came to have exercise and self-care routines because they had injuries and chronic pain from writing for extended periods of time.
Below are some of the tips for helping avoid that discomfort. I should say that you should seek medical and specialist advise as well. I have a mat Pilates workout from my physio and I have regular eye check ups. Also a healthy diet and water is so important for your ability to maintain an exercise routine, but also to support that writing mind. Also we all know you should have a properly set up workspace. This is something I believe needs more attention from occupational health and safety professionals for casual workers who use hot desks and/or can’t access equipment like standing desks.
- Look away from the computer screen
- Eye exercises
- Use eye drops
- Use a warm eye-mask for 15 minutes
- Purchase a gamer monitor. You might not notice but your eyes are affected by the continuous refreshing of your monitor. The slower the refresh rate, the more your eyes are strained
- Purchase computer glasses. I have some and they are great. They filter the glare but they can also be prescribed for the distance from your eyes to the monitor (like reading glasses)
- Work on paper when you can
- Audiobooks for non-work related reading – don’t only read for work (eg YA literature is fun, engaging, not just for teenagers, and will motivate you to walk)
- Wear sunglasses
- Wear glasses and limit use of contacts
- MOVE! Walk, jog or move around the way you enjoy the most – use audiobooks (and/or dogs) make distance easier to commit to
- Yoga, Pilates, rolfing or stretching – nearly everyone advised one or the other and you can find 10 minute routines on YouTube (here’s one I found this morning and enjoyed)
- Swimming, floatation therapy
- Weight training or weight bearing classes like barre, pump or cross fit
- Work away from the computer with books, paper, audio – One tweeter even worked floating in a pool
- Foam rollers, yoga bolsters, cushions, spiky balls, therabands, heat packs
- Timed writing stints where an alarm reminds you to get up and stretch
- Regular massage appointment
Fitting it all in
I am quite aware that exercise routines work for some people and not for others due to caring commitments, differing abilities and other obligations, so here is some of the time-saving advice that was given.
- Using trips to the bathroom, coffee machine and photocopier as excuses to move further, up stairs, or as a prop for stretching
- Do a short stretch routine after a shower so your body is warmed up
- Having pets who need their needs tended to and distract you from getting too lost in the writerly moment
- Do weight training while watching TV
Do you have anything to add? This is not a list of EVERYTHING that must be done, but options that are available. I hope there is something in the list you find useful. I would like to continue this conversation in the comments and would especially like to hear from writers with different abilities.*
I would like to thank the generosity of those who responded (both writers and those that use computers all day).
*I’d also like to thank the critical eye of Annie Hayford for noting the ableist assumptions I made in the first iteration.