Today I have a special guest post from Jennifer Willis, author, essayist and journalist from Portland, Oregon. Thanks Jennifer!
Staying Balanced on Deadline
The seemingly simple way to remain balanced and focused as deadlines approach is to plan out every step of your project, allocate adequate time and resources to each piece, stay focused and stay on target.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen.
Things go wrong. Interviewees go on vacation just when you need that juicy quote from them, or your editor asks for a new sidebar for your feature article, requiring significantly more research. The printer runs out of ink (and no ones has the cartridge you need in stock), or just when you’ve given yourself the entire afternoon to do your backgrounding, your internet service cuts out, stranding you in your home office.
Stress is a natural part of a writer’s life, but it doesn’t have to bring you to your knees.
Here are some tips I follow — more or less — to keep me firing on at least most of my cylinders as I juggle multiple project deadlines. And you don’t have to be a writer to give them a try!
Drink Plenty of Water
I have a tendency to dehydrate at the drop of a hat, and it’s even worse when I’m feeling stressed. I do keep a glass of water on my desk — not too close to the computer, in case the cats decide to knock it over — and I also get up regularly to refill it, which gives me a nice break from my computer screen for a few minutes.
This wil seem like a no-brainer. Of course physical exercise is a great way to burn off stress! But you really have to find the activity or activities that work best for you. I’ve found that when I try to incorporate a specific routine at regular intervals during the day — e.g., hiking up and down the stairs for five minutes at the top of every hour — this can end up feeling like more work and stress, from a mental standpoint.
I still do my time on the staircase, but I’ve learned to mix this up with some play time with the dogs — a huge stress-reliever! — moving into another room for a few minutes of stretching, going for a walk outside on a nice day, or even taking some time to dance to a favorite song on my ipod.
Do not put off stretching or taking a quick walk until you’re so bleary-eyed from working on the computer that you can’t see, and you’re so exhausted that all you can do is lie down on the couch. Do make yourself take a break every hour or two to at least get up from your desk and move around a little, while incorporating longer breaks for more activity at least once or twice a day.
Embrace What Calms You
Setting up your office as a peaceful and productive workspace is going to be different for different people. When it comes to keeping my space free of clutter and distractions, I’m certainly no role model, but I have learned what elements help to keep me calm and focused, particularly when I’m feeling stressed. I find that having a lit candle nearby helps to keep me alert and honed in on what’s in front of me. I’ll pull up an ambient station on iTunes radio for some relaxing music or birdsongs in the background. Having critters in my office — a cat curled up on top of the printer, and a dog snoozing at my feet — can also be very soothing, but that really depends on what I’m working on; sometimes I need to use that printer, or I need to be able to get up frequently from my desk without the dog being in the way.
Others might find success with aromatherapy, adding green or flowering plants to their workspace, tacking up tranquil or inspiring posters and photographs on the walls, or blasting death metal at full volume until the floor shakes.
Take Time Off
Taking a break — for a couple of hours or even a day or more — may sound counter-intuitive when you’re on a deadline, but I’ve found this to be absolutely essential. If I’m working on a big project 14 hours a day, every day, I’m going to burn out pretty quickly. I had the opportunity to learn this lesson again fairly recently. I became a slave to getting my ebook, “Valhalla,” out the door on a pretty aggressive publication schedule, and I was driving myself into the ground to do it. I got to the point where I couldn’t sit in front of the computer another minute. Even with a major deadline looming, I was so brain-fried that I couldn’t even think straight about how to operate kitchen utensils.
So I took some time off. I spent a day sitting outside in the sun, reading, napping, taking walks. And it was amazing. That one day of just relaxing and taking care of myself was miraculously restorative and when it was time to go back to work, my head was clear and I reveled in renewed enthusiasm. I ended up taking several longer breaks like this one, and you know what? I finished my work ahead of schedule.
This is the one activity I really need to be sure to make time for, each and every day. Years ago, I came across some wisdom that went something like this: “If you’re busy, thirty minutes of daily meditation will suffice. If you are very busy, only an hour every day should be necessary.”
Yes, read that again. The more stressed you are and the more harried you feel, the more you need to take a time out.
More than twenty years since I first studied meditation, I’m still trying to find the best “meditation structure” that fits for me — what time of day, how long, what room in the house, relaxing music and candles or none, etc. But what it really comes down to is just sitting down and chilling out. While I don’t suggest remaining at your desk in front of your computer to meditate, you can do this pretty much anywhere — on the couch, on a park bench, waiting for the bus or the train, even standing in line at the post office. And meditation doesn’t require marathon sessions. Being still for a few minutes to quiet the mind and pay attention to your breathing can bring some much-needed bliss to your day.
Remaining calm and keeping stress at bay won’t magically bring that out-of-town interviewee immediately to the phone or result in printer cartridges serendipitously appearing in your supply closet. But maintaining balance goes a long way toward mental, emotional and physical health and can have a huge impact on how you handle the problems and crises that arise during the normal course of any project. Ultimately, your inner poise is also reflected in the work that you turn out, and in how you feel at the end of the day.
These are just a few of the strategies I use to maintain serenity as I face some pretty stiff deadlines. I’ll also turn to yoga, singing songs from childhood, baking and reading a good book when I need a time out, and making sure I’m eating properly and getting enough sleep every night. For even more ideas, I highly recommend checking out Kate Hanley’s “The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide” — Kate is the queen of chill!
Jennifer Willis is an author, essayist, and journalist in Portland, Oregon. In her non-fiction work, she specializes in topics related to sustainability, spirituality/religion, history, and health. Her articles have appeared in The Oregonian, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, The Portland Tribune, The Writer, Ancestry Magazine, Aish.com, Skirt!, InterfaithFamily.com, Vegetarian Times, Spirituality & Health, and other print and online publications at home and across the globe.
Visit her online at jennifer-willis.com.