One of the most critical aspects of writing that is often overlooked is the writer’s health.
Fortunately for us, Joanna Penn has released a book that addresses health issues that many writers face. Joanna is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author, as well as a nonfiction author who writes books for authors. She has sold over 500,000 copies of her 24 books in 84 countries and five languages. She’s an indie author, a speaker, and she was voted one of The Guardian UK’s Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013. She lives in Bath, England, but she is an avid world traveler.
We interviewed Joanna about her book, The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term.
How did you get inspired to write The Healthy Writer?
Joanna: With nonfiction particularly, you end up writing the book you need the most. For example, I wrote The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey because I was crippled with self-doubt.
With The Healthy Writer, I’d been talking on my podcast about my repetitive strain injury in my right arm. I was having a lot of pain. In addition, since I was leading a sedentary lifestyle, I was feeling very heavy. I had so much back pain that I ended up in the hospital having scans for possible spinal tumors. I had a lot of migraine headaches, and I was definitely a sugar addict.
I started to share about some of my pain on my podcast, and people started emailing me about it.
One day I got an email from Dr. Euan Lawson, a listener of my podcast, and he said, “You’ve been talking about health. I want to write a book on health. Maybe we could co-write a book.”
I thought it was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel qualified.
Then I did a survey on TheCreativePenn.com, and over 1,100 authors reported having different health issues, both physical and mental. It was heartbreaking. Writers have incredible amounts of pain. That’s when I knew we had to write this book.
We wrote the book because I desperately needed it, and we recognized the author community needed it too, especially since the prevailing wisdom says, “write more books.” If you want to be a prolific author, you need to look after your physical health.
What did writers say about their health?
Joanna: If you’re 25 years old, you just don’t even feel this stuff. This is definitely a long-term, cumulative issue.
I’ve worked in offices since 1997. Even before I was a writer, I was working on computers. Computer work builds habits in the way we sit and the habitual way we eat. These things build up, and we have to start changing those habits if we want to have longevity in a healthy body. In the same way, if you want to be a writer for the long term, you have to write. If you stop writing, you will quit being a writer. Likewise, if you quit moving around, your body is going to give up at some point.
You should feel good in your body, and you should enjoy your physical self. If you want to be a writer for the long term, looking after your body is the best way to do it.
Thomas: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And it applies to marketing too.
Many authors don’t market because they don’t have the energy to do what they know they need to do. It’s a lot of work to promote your book, write blog posts, optimize your Amazon pages, and check your Amazon ads. If you don’t have the energy, you might put it off and cut corners. Ultimately, that can sabotage your marketing.
Joanna: If you’re having pain, start doing things differently with your physical movement. For example, if you are getting a lot of wrist, arm, and back pain, you need to move more as you write. That pain can drive you to try something like dictation, where you can actually walk around while you’re working.
I’ve found that I get ideas for marketing while I’m out walking and dictating.
Sometimes I’ll see something I want to photograph for marketing purposes. I can take the picture, then dictate a few notes about it on my walk, and then come back to it later.
The photos you take while walking might be good to post on Instagram. These things can actually be part of your personal branding.
When I came on the show last time, we talked about content marketing. So often, you can create while integrating your movement.
For instance, I’m marketing my book, The Healthy Writer, right now. While I’m talking with you, I’m standing up at a standing desk, so. A standing desk isn’t about weight loss, but you do burn more calories when you stand up. Additionally, you make more micro-movements. As I talk, I can lean side to side, move my arms around more, and I can stretch while I’m speaking to you.
Try to integrate marketing and physical movement into your life simultaneously. You don’t have to exercise at a certain time and market at a specified time. Just think about how you can integrate health and wellness into your writing and marketing. It’s more of a lifestyle of movement.
Thomas: A standing desk is a great asset for your creativity and health. Plus, if you live in the United States and you’re a professional writer, the purchase of a standing desk can be tax deductible. The IRS doesn’t necessarily care about your sickness or pain. They just see your desk purchase as a “furniture and fixtures” line item that is tax deductible.
I got my standing desk at Ikea. It has a little motor, and I can push a button to make it go up and down. I’ve been able to start standing more while working.
Joanna: I used to have that same desk, but when the motor quit working, I got a desk topper. It’s a stand to put on top of a desk. Some people just use boxes to elevate their desks. Cost is not a reason not to try something like a standing desk.
Getting an external keyboard for your laptop is important because your hands need to be at a certain level for typing. But there are many ways to hack the standing desk idea.
Jim: I love hearing how organic this can be. You’re making choices about changing your lifestyle in the way you approach everything regarding your health.
Joanna: Yes. The book came out at the end of November 2017. As we talk, it’s February 2018, and I think my life has changed so much since the book even came out because of this organic feeling.
By writing the book, I learned a lot about myself and my own issues, particularly around food. Many writers have emotional issues around food because we use our brains so much, and it’s very tiring. Eating sugar is one way to quickly impact your brain, and it may help you write more, but the rest of your body doesn’t really appreciate the large family pack of Haribos, which was my nemesis.
I’ve also started to reframe exercise as movement. You’ll hear me talk about movement rather than exercise because exercise has become a negative word as if it’s a punishment. Movement is more like walking up the stairs, using a standing desk, or going for a walk to get some space for my brain.
With food, instead of saying, “I’m on a diet,” I say, “I’m eating food that makes my body happy.”
How do you schedule periods of refreshment and restoration after times of intense work?
Jim: When I finish recording an audiobook or writing the first draft of a novel, I feel so emotionally spent. How do you schedule periods of refreshment and restoration after times of intense work?
Joanna: To be honest, I think if you don’t feel completely empty after you’ve finished a book, then you haven’t worked hard enough. You should leave everything on the page and feel empty afterward.
You have to establish healthy practices in order to create in the first place. Movement should be part of your daily habit.
I tend to do my first draft creation work between 7:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. After that, I walk or go to a yoga class. That movement serves to change my state of mind so that when I come back to work, I’ll do marketing, which uses a different part of the brain than creative work.
Eating food that nourishes your body rather than hurts it will help you.
Once you’ve finished your project, you should schedule time to recover. That recovery time will be different for different people.
How do you stay creative without burning out?
I like to think of it as a season. In Britain right now, it’s winter. It’s dark, and things aren’t growing much. After you’ve given everything to a book, we have a winter fallow period, and then spring comes again.
In December, I was burnt out. I wrote three novels under my three different pen names, and I was really empty. I couldn’t and didn’t want to start another book. So, I wrote a screenplay instead. I needed to be creative, but I needed to do something different. The screenplay satisfied my creative side without burning me out. It was so much fun for me.
If you feel burnt out and cannot bear to write another romantic suspense, I’d encourage you to write something different. Changing your focus can make things come alive again, and then you can go back to that other genre or pen name or marketing.
I’m an absolute fan of paid advertising like Facebook ads, Amazon ads, and BookBub ads, but I do not find it nourishing to my soul. I tend to push it for a short time, and then I stop. If I do ads every day, I will slit my wrists.
Creating ads is very much a periodic task for me, and that’s another way I manage my energy. I will allocate some time for the tasks I don’t love, and then I will do something fun, like write a screenplay. You must manage your energy cycles for all these different tasks.
Seasons of Rest
Thomas: Giving yourself permission to rest is important. Many authors are so driven that taking a break feels wrong. Even if they manage to take a physical break from writing, they still feel guilty mentally, so they’re not getting an emotional break. Authors need to remember that it’s okay to let the fields rest and receive nutrients from the sun and water. You don’t have to go 100 miles per hour every day.
How to Biohack Your Productivity and Creativity as a Writer
Joanna: The fallow time that fills the creative well is just as important as the time for creative output.
As Dr. Euan and I were writing the book, I suggested a chapter on nootropic drugs, which are a class of drugs people are using to biohack their productivity. I figured there must be supplements and substances we could talk about that would help writers work harder. We wrote that chapter, but the most interesting finding was that the best way to hack your creativity and be the best version of yourself is to get more sleep.
Basically, if you sleep well, eat food that nourishes your body, and move your body, you can hack your brain to be more creative and productive.
It’s the same kind of finding as “Get your butt in the chair and write.” We know that’s what it takes. I wanted to find some evidence that a certain drug would help me write more and get rich. But I actually just need more sleep.
I was talking to someone about the research on willpower. Turns out we have a certain amount of willpower every day, and we lose a little bit of it every time we have to make a decision. The decisions we make while writing fiction tax our willpower. Throughout your day, you’re deciding whether your character will do or say this or that. By the time you’ve written for three hours, you’ve exhausted your willpower.
You’ve mentally done all that activity on behalf of a character. Even though you’ve just been writing, you might have lived this whole thing in your brain. That’s why it’s so tiring, and your body needs sleep to recover.
If you’re feeling that your health isn’t great, prioritize your sleep. Everything is easier if you’re getting enough sleep. I can even make healthier eating decisions and have more energy to exercise if I’m well-rested.
To improve your sleep quality, Dr. Euan Larson gives the following tips to improve sleep.
- Shut your phone down way before you want to go to sleep.
- Don’t take your phone to bed with you.
- Take your TV out of your bedroom. Your bedroom should be for sleep or sex.
Joanna: Different types of light keep you awake. I sleep with earplugs and an eye mask so I don’t wake up when my husband gets up in the middle of the night.
If you think I’m talking a load of crap, read Why We Sleep, and you will find that sleep deprivation is linked with Alzheimer’s, blood sugar levels, diseases, and psychiatric conditions.
Jim: I was diagnosed with sleep apnea about two years ago. I got the mask, and it has changed my life because now I actually sleep.
Isn’t pain just a part of the writing life?
Joanna: Writers also suffer from chronic self-doubt, and sometimes we think that physical pain is just part of life, and it’s not. If something has been hurting for ages or if you’re getting frequent headaches, don’t accept it as a normal part of life.
For me, it was the elbow and wrist pain I’d been having for two years. I thought headaches were normal and that everybody got headaches. Any kind of pain will fatigue you and impact everything else you’re doing.
Part of taking care of your health is choosing to be kind to yourself. If your kid said, “Oh, daddy, my tummy hurts,” you’d try to fix it! We need to learn to do that for ourselves as well as our family members.
What message is our pain trying to send?
Thomas: We also need to listen to pain as a signal from the body. We have a pain epidemic, and people want to take a pill for the pain. They start with Advil or ibuprofen, and eventually, they need some kind of opioid.
Pain is your body saying, “I need you to start doing something you’re not doing now, or I need you to stop doing something you are doing now.” Pain is a message from your body asking you to change your behavior.
Joanna: I know this may sound difficult as if you have to completely change your life, but I think we need to look at the long-term results.
Think of it in terms of book marketing. Some authors believe that if they run a Facebook ad today, they’ll be number one on Amazon tomorrow. We tend to take the same approach with our health, believing that doing the Paleo diet will make us lose 20 pounds in a week.
But whether it’s writing, marketing, or health, your efforts will build upon themselves for your benefit over the long haul.
Make small changes every day. Maybe you get the standing desk topper or take a ten-minute walk. Mini-Habits is a fantastic book that will help you make small cumulative changes a little bit at a time.
Who helped you improve your health?
Jim: Did you make these changes with someone, or was this something you did on your own?
Joanna: When I left my day job in 2011, I thought I’d have all the time I needed to exercise, and I’d be healthy and slim, but then I became absorbed in building a writing career.
Between 2011 and 2015, my health probably got worse. I became a full-time writer and fell into a lot of bad habits. I was working 12-hour days because I no longer had to commute.
When I hired my husband, we moved so we could have a more active life. I started walking a lot more, and because I’m a goal-driven person, I started booking events, so I do ultramarathons now.
Jim: Wait a minute. Are you running ultramarathons?
Joanna: I’m walking ultramarathons. I walked 100km in a weekend. I’ve booked my next event walking 106km around the Isle of Wight in Britain over two days.
You don’t need to do anything extreme, but setting a goal will help you achieve better health.
We writers spend so much time investing in our education by attending conferences and listening to podcasts on writing and marketing. I realized I didn’t know enough about my physical self, and I started working with a health coach. If you have money in your budget for working with a health coach or investing in your education around health, I think that will pay massive dividends in the future.
Thomas: As an author, you are your biggest asset. If your health is keeping you from writing books, or if better health would help you write more books, why wouldn’t you want to invest in the asset of your body?
A building can last for generations, but a body can only last one lifetime. Investing in your health is critical to your success.
Joanna: Being healthier will help you be more productive, but there’s a lot of happiness involved too. If you’re in pain and popping pills every day to get some relief, that won’t solve your problem.
Part of the reason we become writers is because we love writing. Let’s not kill our passion for writing by turning it into a physically painful thing. Interestingly, people typically only try dictation when they can no longer physically type. Why not try dictation for your next first draft to give your arms and wrists a break?
Don’t wait to learn dictation until you’re in terrible pain. Check in with your body and listen to what it’s telling you.
My headaches were actually a result of my back pain. Once you get one problem solved, you have more energy to focus on fixing the next thing, whether it’s eating healthier or addressing your elbow pain.
Sort out your health, and you will write faster and be happier.
Learn more about improving your health in The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term.
Connect with Joanna at TheCreativePenn.com