I’ve always thought my writing routine boring to most people, so I just don’t talk about it. But as social distancing now nears the end of its 2nd week, with perhaps many more weeks to come, I see many people sharing how they are spending their time to stay sane. Among these especially: writers. So, it’s my turn.
Back at the start of 2017, someone gave me some good advice:
“Don’t wait to be a full-time writer. Be that now. Make it real, and let the reality catch up.”
I thought he was nuts, but I understood where he was coming from. The context of this advice: at the time, I was snowed in with editing jobs. There was no time to write. No time to do the reading I know a writer should be doing to improve.
What he was saying to me was that I had to cement the times to write. Pretend that money is no issue. Pretend I’m sitting on a 6-figure cheque. How exactly would I spend my time if writing were my job?
What he was leading me toward was a stark truth: just because you have all your time free to write doesn’t mean you’ll write. Instead, you’ll be stuck with Netflix and video games and social media chats and extra visits with friends and whatever the hell you want to do.
Becoming a full-time writer isn’t a financial thing. It’s a mentality, and the gateway to a discipline that becomes several habits.
The first thing I realized when the Covid-19 social distancing routine started was that my life for the last 2 years, since taking my friend’s advice, has been identical to social distancing, with one main exception:
I can’t go out to coffee shops where I like to work.
In a typical weekday, I’m get in about 5-7 hours of productive work. About 4-5 of that is specific to the full-time writing routine I keep up. On Saturday and Sunday I’m only productive about 3-5 hours and most of that is reading and writing.
I don’t do this all at once. I like to break it into about 3-4 chunks of 1-2 hours, and usually I change location between each. Hence the coffee shops.
One thing I learned right away during Covid-19 social distancing is that “change location” doesn’t have to involve much. Here are some examples of how I “changed location” without leaving my house:
On Saturday and Sunday, I go to a coffee shop first thing to put in 2 hours of reading on the local paper. This is a great routine and I typically can read about 50-60 articles on relevant news each weekend. I like to read a physical paper because there are no distractions. My phone is out of reach. It’s just me and the words.
I really didn’t know how to do this at home. But, left with no choice, I assessed the house and realized the kitchen table, if cleared of junk, is perfect. I did it and made a French Press of coffee, and was pleasantly surprised how it felt just as engaging as my coffee shop setting.
This is all a psychology game. Sitting and putting in a solid 30-40 hours of a mix of reading and writing (for me, it’s about 70% reading), will drive most people nuts. The trick is convincing yourself that each chunk of 1-2 hours is special and unique, so you don’t feel you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again.
In the case of my kitchen table, I set up a bit of a ritual to play the psychology game well. I will only sit at it to read the paper for my 2 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Now that space and setup in my mind is “weekend coffee shop”.
As another example, I have two different couches and an office. I’ve also learned to turn my bed into a reading space by propping up pillows so I can sit against them like a chair. I do this for some of the article reading I do first thing each morning on weekdays. I deal with my 1 hour of business decisions and tasks in my office every weekday afternoon. I do my writing there as well, but usually after I’ve gone to the garage for my workout (I have a power rack and dumbbell equipment there and work out about 20-40 minutes every day), and played piano for about 30-60 minutes. I do some journaling and reflection as well in the middle of the day. So, though I’m back in the office chair to write for 1-2 hours again, I’ve been doing other things and my brain is refreshed for 100% focus on the words and only the words.
Having these spots around the house to put in different types of work helps me prime myself to feel like I’m at a special place to do that certain work that “belongs” there. I knew this before, but the Covid-19 outbreak has helped me appreciate deeper how one can achieve this in a small 600 square foot house.
Going for a walk is quite important. We are not in extreme quarantine yet, so taking a walk around a few blocks, being sure you keep well away from anyone you cross paths with, and touching nothing on the walk, ensures you get your exercise and fresh air, without compounding the issue of this spreading virus. Going for a walk has simulated for me the same psychology as getting in the car and driving to a coffee shop. Usually, that’s a mental way of switching gears from one chunk of work to the next. But walking is also great because it engages every muscle in your body in light exertion, while you’re getting sunlight and breathing fresh air. It awakens your mind in ways that don’t happen otherwise.
Even if I could only walk around my yard in circles, I’d get out for that movement/air/sunlight dose.
I definitely miss coffee shops though. While I’ve found I get an extra 1-2 hours / day of productivity because of not having to drive anywhere, I do like the outing. But that said, I think after Covid-19 is past and life slowly shifts back to “post-Covid” and whatever that means, I will be staying home more than before. Spring is on its way, and that means the 2020 garden and what adventures it will bring for me this year. And if gardening has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to go far to feel like you’re immersed in a world of possibilities.