How are you coping?
Since the latest lockdown restrictions here in the UK, this is a question I’ve asked or been asked often. Underneath this short question lies so much more. How are you coping with the lockdown? With having a house full of people working from home? With not being able to hug your loved ones?
With not being able to share your worries over coffee with friends? With only ever seeing your four walls? With having a house full of children you have to home-school, while you’re still trying to do your normal job or – even harder – trying to think creatively?
Losing the plot…
Most people are coping, but that’s just about the level of it: ‘coping’. Wherever I look, there seems to be a low-level stress and anxiety simmering away under the surface. My way of showing stress is through being irritable, and these days my irritability can rise at the slightest thing, and in no time I’ve gone from grumpy to full-blown enraged.
I have an example of this type of stress in a short story I wrote at Christmas about two old friends in lockdown in a care home. Staged, a BBC series I’ve been loving, goes further with this episode and Michael Sheen’s spectacular and moving Zoom meltdown. He was tired and he ‘just wanted a hug’.
On a permanent short fuse myself, that episode particularly resonated with me.
Creativity in a busy house
One difficulty many creatives and freelancers are facing is that they’ve now lost the luxury of working alone from home. Everybody is working from home – even the children. Concentrating is impossible.
Author Debbie Young recently posted on Facebook: ‘Everything seems to take longer during lockdown hence I get less done. Even if you don’t have kids around, the underlying chronic stress that the pandemic causes is debilitating.’
All types of creative people are struggling. I subscribe to Knitting Now and Then, a wonderful blog for knitters/knitting history, and the author wrote this week: ‘Since last March, and the first UK lockdown, I have written very little on this blog. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – the problem is summoning up the mental energy to say it.’
How do we help our own wellbeing?
In the past week, I’ve been to two online sessions on wellbeing.
The first was the regular meeting of the West Yorks branch of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, hosted by editor Helen Stevens of Saltaire Editorial Services.
The second was a webinar on wellbeing, given by Dr Richard Pile, hosted by the northern branch of the Society of Authors. Dr Pile is a GP and author (his book Fit for Purpose will be released in April).
Both sessions were full of excellent tips on how to stay sane. I came away thinking much more positively about how to make changes for myself.
Here are the tips I found most useful from both sessions:
Tip one: Get enough sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis was Dr Pile’s most important piece of advice. He said many of us underestimate the amount of sleep we need, and we underestimate the debilitating effects of lack of sleep on both our physical and mental health.
His tips on sleep:
- We need seven or eight hours’ sleep every night. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can ‘catch up’ with a long lie-in at the weekend. Get into a good routine of getting up at the same time, and going to bed at the same time every night.
- Try not to use your bedroom as an office or home cinema. Of course, this is difficult if you don’t have much room in the house to work from home. Sometimes rearranging the room between work and bedtime even in just a small way can help – for example, hiding everything on the desk under a nice throw.
- The light from phones affects our melatonin levels and how we sleep. Better not to look at your phone or screen at least an hour before bedtime, and don’t keep your phone in the room.
- Cut down on caffeine, especially in the afternoon.
- Take regular exercise (see below), but try to avoid doing high-intensity exercise later in the day.
- Sleeping pills and herbal sleeping pills don’t provide the same restorative sleep as sleeping naturally. There are times when they are needed, but should only be used to get us through a temporary crisis.
Tip two: Keep active
Human beings aren’t meant to be sedentary. Dr Pile pointed out that our natural state is being made to move, but if you’re working from home, you don’t even have that walk to the bus stop or the station in the morning, or the walk to the sandwich shop at lunch-time.
Tips for home-workers on keeping active:
- Add ‘movement breaks’ to your day. At the CIEP meeting, editor Andy Coulson said he made himself regular ‘appointments’ in his diary to remind him to get up, walk about, or even run up and down the three flights of stairs to his attic office
- Several of the West Yorkshire editors mentioned online yoga classes. Here are some of the recommendations:
- Editor Melanie Thompson uses a standing desk. She gives various options in this useful post, and explains why she chose a VariDesk Cube Corner
- I loved editor Helen Stevens’ idea of an under-desk cycle, which she demonstrated over Zoom. Drier (and safer) than cycling in the Yorkshire winter! And you can link to apps/fitbits for tracking/performance monitoring, etc. If you don’t have much room under the desk, there are elliptical cycles available. Here are some examples at DeskCycle
- Making your heart rate go up is more important than doing a lot of steps. High intensity interval training can be done even in a small space. There are some examples of exercises here – but if you’re starting from zero, just simple stuff like making sure you don’t rely on others to bring you tea/coffee can help. Several smaller movements throughout the day is better than blasting it out once a week
Tip three: relax
Well, this is easier said than done. I imagine for some people, leaving a stressful office environment to work in the comfort of their own home might be a welcome move. As a writer and editor, I was already working from home, and so were most people I know. Now we have lots of others working from home, and some people I know have a house full. How can you possibly relax?
Besides this, we’re locked down and living in a pandemic. As Dr Pile put it, ‘the baseline of stress has been raised across the world.’ He said that once you’re entrenched in a mindset of anxiety, it’s difficult to change, so instead of changing your mindset, change your movement. His main tip is:
- Breathe. Take a quick breath in, hold it, and breathe out slowly. This simple act can start to break the cycle of stress
- Make time for yourself. This is something all freelancers have to learn to do. If you’re suddenly plunged into working from home, you can feel ‘on’ all the time. Remember to treat it as a 9-to-5 and keep evenings/weekends free
- For freelancers, editor Dawn Leggott recommends making sure you give yourself a holiday and have it earmarked in the diary. Even if lockdown means you have to spend that holiday at home, make sure you have a week (or two weeks) marked off where you do nothing but relax
- Read for pleasure. Immersing myself in a book is one of my top ways to relax, and it’s no surprise to find the type of uplifting novels I like to write are popular at the moment
- Take up a craft. There is nothing like creating something to lift the spirits. I mentioned I loved knitting and gardening, but you don’t have to learn anything new. I downloaded a Free Photobooks app and started organising my phone photos to create a photobook. I felt genuinely uplifted looking through my first book of happy memories
- Connect with nature. Even if you live in the city, and even though it’s winter, take a walk outdoors every day. (I used to use walking time for thinking time, but since I started posting photos on Instagram, I take far more notice of my surroundings and the changing of the seasons. I notice the difference in my state of mind if I don’t take a daily walk.)
- Many people swear by meditation. Apps recommended by both authors and editors were: Headspace; Headspace on Netflix; The Calm app for both meditation and sleep
Tip four: be kind to yourself
If you’re a freelancer working from home, you’ll be used to deadlines. Interestingly, many editors in our recent meeting said that, despite deadlines, in general freelancing has given them a much better work/life balance than being in employment.
With my editing hat on, although I’ve been extremely busy, I haven’t struggled particularly to concentrate while working from home during lockdown.
When it comes to writing fiction, it’s different. I find writing uses a different part of the brain to editing, and during lockdown I’ve found it extremely difficult to think creatively. I find this very hard to deal with, I get frustrated, and convince myself I’m failing. (And I’m lucky – unlike some, I don’t have small children at home that I also have to now home-school.)
It’s no wonder many writers are feeling too overwhelmed to write.
Another piece of wellbeing advice from Dr Richard Pile was to surround yourself with supportive people. Of course, this has to be done remotely now, but it is possible. I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and their Facebook forum is extremely helpful and supportive.
This advice from ALLi member Debbie Young on trying not to get too anxious about your word count resonated with me:
‘I consider a day a success if I complete one task on my to-do list and anything else is a bonus. Maybe the thing to do is to change your daily writing targets so you’re not trying to write x words but to write uninterrupted for x minutes – even if it’s only 10 minutes a day.
Having done something makes a psychological difference and also keeps your story fresh in your mind. I have also been struggling to write every day on my WIP and have not met my targets for word count, but am managing to write every day.
Getting a pep-talk by reading Helena Halme’s little book Write Every Day helped too. (It doesn’t take long to read so shouldn’t be too hard to fit into your already busy schedule!) Also ahelpful mantra: ‘What gets done first gets done’ – so try to do your writing early in the day, before all your time is spoken for.’
Debbie Young is also a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, another immensely supportive group, both in real life, and online. I’ve made many friends the RNA, and my fellow authors of the Miss Moonshine anthologies are a particular source of support.
I hope you’ve found the tips from my editors’ and authors’ online meetings as useful as I have. If you’d like to listen to Dr Richard Pike’s talk, it’s still available here.
How are you coping with the restrictions during the pandemic? Do you struggle to think creatively at the moment? If so, how do you cope?
If you have any comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
16 thoughts on “Working well at home: Wellbeing tips for writers, creatives and freelancers”
I’m one of the people for whom working from home seems to be a net positive – it cuts out my commute, which was a huge source of fatigue. I don’t have children, and my husband is also working from home so we can keep each other company. However, I’m still pretty tired, and also finding that anything creative is a bit of a slog. The day job is one thing, but I’m not managing much beyond that. I’ve decided to call it hibernation and catch up on reading instead!
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Hi Kathleen, when I started working form home I was SO glad to give up the commute. I don’t mind commuting by train so much, as I find it easy to immerse myself in a book, but the drive in rush hour traffic was soul-destroying.
I like your philosophy of accepting it is what it is. This is similar to Debbie Young’s advice to write for ten minutes and don’t beat yourself up for not meeting targets. Something I find is easier said than done, but it’s a really good piece of advice.
Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment.
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These are some fantastic tips. I really appreciate that you have done more than just repeat common advice such as “make time for yourself”, but you have actually given suggestions of HOW to do so. Thank you for sharing your advice and perspective.
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I agree, vague advice is frustrating and can even leave you feeling more stressed. I’m quite a logical person and I like practical tips. Thanks so much for dropping in and for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.
What a great post, Helena – thank you for all those tips and links. Although I don’t have a lot of anxiety myself, I’ve had to change my type of creativity to allow me to enjoy writing shorter items rather than the long slog of writing (or finishing) novels. I do a little online Tai’chi and we have a daily walk, snow and ice permitting. Otherwise, I’m reading more and have decided to watch a film or part of a Netflix series before dinner if I get fed up. If it has adverts, I can read shorter magazines in between! I guess it’s easier for those of us who are used to working from home but I don’t get to see my granddaughter every week now. On a positive – we didn’t need to do the school run in all the dangerous snowy ice we’ve had. Do keep well and as positive as you can – this will all pass and spring is just around the corner.
Hello Rosemary, I love the idea of the online Tai’chi. Getting into a routine really helps, and we’re lucky to have a dog, which forces us to walk every day, rain or shine. It’s very difficult indeed not being able to see family. My mum has got quite down not being able to see all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’ve made her a photo book of everyone, but it’s not the same. But you’re right, this too will pass, and we’ll appreciate family all the more once it does.
Thanks for dropping in, and your great comment.
I have to admit that, with autism, I just need to have a completely clear mind to write. That means getting every last other problem off my plate (if possible). The good news is that I’m just about there, The better news is that some people with autism struggle with social interaction anyway so we (me, anyway) can cope slightly better in more isolated circumstances.
For extroverts, it must be hell.
I also had to cope with a major home move from Scotland to Shropshire, in the middle of which the pandemic started, so (rather as Debbie Young said) both to cope with the move and the circumstances, I faced up to every problem I could there and then and made sure to at least get something done every day.
Last winter, I did actually write and send off that evil novel you may recall me mentioning, got two callbacks from literary agents but no actual mazuma, and am just finishing off my flat before I (hopefully) restart.
I do wonder if I’ve had my day but, decades ago, I took two years off from writing THE LEGEND OF JOHN MACNAB while I dealt with an earlier move and my father’s death. MACNAB required a lot of research material to be at hand, so i just bluntly said to myself: “I need a desk, word-processor and shelves for the research. Once I’ve got that, I’ll restart.”
And so it came to pass…
And so it also came to pass that I mentioned to a friend that I’d restarted MACNAB…
When I did so, there was about twenty seconds of stunned silence from his direction.
Finally, he said:
“Oh I, er, thought, er, you’d, like, put it on the backburner…”
Rather tartly, I replied:
Well, I put it back on the FRONTburner!”
It took twenty-one years, end to end, to write MACNAB. But it was finally complete, accepted, published and well-reviewed.
The moral of the story, perhaps, is this:
Events will happen which delay and deter you, but if you want to be published, you’ll have to get back in the saddle at some point. I’m afraid a lot of people in this world start things but don’t finish them.
But writers really have to concentrate on the job in hand, and it’s never easy.
As Dr. Johnson said in BLACKADDER THE THIRD:
“The [dictionary] that took me eighteen hours in every day for the last ten years … My mother died – I hardly noticed. My father cut off his head and fried it with garlic in the hope of attracting my attention – I scarcely looked up from my work. My wife brought armies of lovers to our house, who worked in droves so that she might bring up a huge family of bastards – I cared not!”
While I do not recommend allowing family members to decapitate themselves, and bringing armies of lovers to the house would violate current lockdown rules, try and do a bit every day. It may even be therapeutic.
But – and I think it will say this – a good writer does need to be a little selfish. Don’t go TOO far, but try and liberate your internal Dr. Johnson!
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Haha! I love the Blackadder quote, and the idea of trying to circumvent lockdown rules with the army of lovers :D How I wish I could write under those circumstances. I definitely need to start channelling my inner Dr Johnson.
One problem I have that’s similar to yours is that I have to metaphorically clear the decks before I can write. I find it very difficult to concentrate if there’s something hanging over me. But I love your philosophy of letting the writing take its time. It is what it is, and as you say, your book was published.
I doubt very much that you have ‘had your day’. You have exactly the right mentality for a successful writer. You get in the saddle and finish the race, no matter how long it takes.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It’s really cheered me up! Very best wishes for your next venture into the writing saddle :)
Helena, it’s wonderful that you wrote a blog to help people during this Covid pandemic/crisis.
Best wishes to you. Stay safe. Keep writing.
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Best wishes to you, too, Susan. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your lovely comment!
Grabbing time online, until my programmer husband begs me to leave ( he’ll be in a meeting, every mper-nano-second vital)
Thank-you so much – for all these great ideas, on yet another dreary pandemic day, unable to hug, chat, or even argue with the people we care about most., An interesting detail – Confrontation, even at the lowest level ? Even WhatsApp time too precious for that. At least an uninvited visitor livened up the past few days… Mr S. Whiskers was advised to leave, Cat flap now locked and will stay locked, until we can source another cat. . ( Rescue cat, sadly, safe in the garden, for ever)
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That’s interesting about confrontation being missing. It’s true, normally we would have arguments with loved ones from time to time. The air gets cleared. Now things seem much more likely to fester inside our four walls.
I love your visitor! Our dog repels visitors to our garden. It’s a quarantine and no-fly zone :) I hope you’re soon able to offer a home to a new cat. Pets have been a great source of solace in these past few months.
Thanks for dropping in. Take care, and all the very best
Hey, Helena. What an excellent post. I do think introverts may have a better time of this than extroverts. Except when they now have others sharing their nest. Bo is now working from home pretty much full time complete with a new desk. We’ve had to learn some sharing tricks, like telling each other when we’re going to print. But mostly it’s going well. The biggest difficulty has been finding time to meditate.
Our full lockdown was lifted way too soon, thus the tragic numbers in our state and nation. I make quick forays into the world for supplies and dash back, wearing my N95 mask if I’ll be there for much time. While I’ve been able to pick up one of my granddaughters, that is being called off. She’s into dancing and selling Girl Scout cookies and her world has gotten too large probably for my safety. I’ll be so glad to get the jab. Still waiting for the first.
Because I’ve been working for home for so long, I have a routine. I need a routine to manage. So between making sure I get my 10 K steps a day and doing Pilates at home three times a week, doing some volunteer church work, church and Sunday School on Sundays, I’ve got structure.
As to writing, I’ve been blessed cranking out 46 K news worlds beginning the last day of October. I find it comforting to escape into the world of my characters where I know they will get a Happily Ever After. Not always so sure in the real world. Thanks for this great post. I’ve shared. :)
Hi Marsha, I find a routine really helps me, too. At the best of times I’m a terrible procrastinator. With a routine I’m more likely to get things done, even if at the moment I’m doing those things slower than usual!
It’s great that you and Bob are both able to work from home. Although I’ve spoken about the difficulties of working from home – and the mental strain can be significant – I feel very sorry indeed for those key workers who are having to go into the workplace. These are dark days indeed.
Congratulations on your word count. People need these uplifting books now more than ever!
Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your thoughtful comment. Wishing you and family all the very best x