Writing is a mentally taxing pursuit… as any writer will attest to. It takes a lot of brain energy to invest yourself into the lives of your characters, their joys and their heartaches—not to mention conceptualizing and being the sole architect of their lives and their world in the first place. It is bloody exhausting.
I find myself in a particularly vulnerable state when it comes to mental energy, due to an underlying endocrine… erm… “inconvenience” which I must actively manage. When I’m hit with low energy days, I’m hit hard—harder than the average person, I dare to say. And I can usually predict, to the day, when I’m going to be hit with prolonged periods of low mental energy on top of it. It’s an annoyance I’ve learned to live with, and one I’ve learned to cope with. Since mental energy is something all writers struggle with every now and then and with varying frequencies, I’d like to share my strategies for managing and improving my mental energy in the hopes that you might find them helpful to your writing, too.
Nutrition and Hydration
Like it or not, your brain is a greedy little organ. It needs vitamins and minerals, loads of glucose, and even more water. If you want it to perform for you, you need to keep it fed and watered. There is no shortage of studies that have found this same fact over and over. Just to be all scholarly, here’s one from the Harvard Medical School:
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress… Diets high in refined sugars… are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function…
After many years of trial and error, I notice a huge difference in my ability to concentrate when I eat well and when I don’t. And I’m not talking from a general “good diet” point of view. I mean, if I wake up and have a bowl of steel-cut oats topped with pumpkin seeds, banana and a “down-it-quick” side of spinach (for the greens), I can power through a session of morning writing a lot better than I can if I were to toast up a white-flour bagel and have that. Green smoothies, fresh fruits, low-sugar granola and whole-grain breakfast cereals are all part of my morning arsenal for orchestrating a high-focus day.
Water is also a big part of my arsenal. Each night I fill a 32 oz water bottle and leave it on my nightstand. In the morning, it’s down the hatch. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “When the water input is less than the output, people may be dehydrated… [D]ehydration may affect cognitive performances, as water accounts for 75% of brain mass.”
I definitely notice a difference when I water my brain first thing in the morning, as opposed to flopping onto the couch with a coffee. Like, literally within less than a minute of a good, long swig, I am feeling much more alert and prepared to attack a substantial writing session.
Exercise and Movement
I don’t know where I heard it, but it has been said that the more energy you demand of your body, the more energy your body will give you to perform. Admittedly, I am no athlete. I don’t train, track or target. But I do notice that when I am exercising regularly, my low energy days don’t get quite as low as when I’m not. They’re also not as frequent, and if they’re of a duration more than a day, that duration is not as long.
Exercise also helps when I’m experiencing a lull in mental energy. If I find myself staring at my computer screen, wanting desperately to put my head down and nap, getting up and doing something like walking the dog, or sweeping her chewed-up bits of sticks and bark from the back patio, or even doing a light bit of cleaning, helps. Not only does it get the blood flowing again, it also gives my brain a chance to disconnect and regroup. When I come back to my computer, I can usually put in another decent half hour to an hour of writing.
This one is all about practice. As Michelle Pfeiffer says in Dangerous Minds (yes, it’s a bit of a throwback, lol), “The mind is a muscle. You’ve gotta work it out.” I have to admit that this is my least favourite tip (because it sucks the most to do) but it’s also extremely effective.
When I am having low energy days, I force myself to sit there and try. Try is the key word. I may get out only one paragraph in an hour. I may spend a good deal of that hour slumped in my chair in a state of mental fog. But here, the goal is not productivity. It is practice. I am practicing the skill of keeping my butt in my chair and my face in front of my computer, even when it’s the absolute last thing I have energy for. I’m groggy, I’m grumpy, I’m overwhelmed and unfocused. But I am there in my chair.
The more I do this, the easier I find it to sit there, and the easier I find it to push through, even if the mental fog never leaves my brain. Author Daniella LaPorte says that “Absolutely everything is progress,” and it is absolutely true. A paragraph of words is one more paragraph than I had yesterday, and I am that much stronger for having forced myself to write it even when I did not have the mental energy for it.
After all, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did not get to the level of fitness he enjoys by lying on the couch moaning “I don’t have the energy for this.” Put simply, you don’t grow when you’re comfortable.
There you have it. Three tips to manage your mental energy that I actually use. What are your tips, writing friends?